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South Dakota settles ACLU vote suit

PIERRE, S.D. - The shoe is on the other foot. After an election in which non-Indian politicians leveled charges of voter fraud against Indian voter registration workers, the state of South Dakota has agreed to settle a massive suit against its own alleged voting law violations. It will turn over its voting laws to the federal authorities for review.

The state was the target of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union claming that some 600 statutes and regulations were passed in violation of federal law. The suit was the most sweeping voting rights complaint in the country.

The original lawsuit argued that Gov. William Janklow signed a redistricting bill into law before the Justice Department gave proper clearance for the legislation.

Some of the laws in question date back 30 years to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine will now submit changes in voting laws for the counties of Shannon and Todd. The counties will also be required to submit changes for approval by the Justice Department.

The two counties and portions of two other counties that are adjacent to the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations make up Districts 26 and 27. District 27 is predominantly American Indian, and District 26 is mostly non-Indian with only 30 percent Native.

The original lawsuit accused the state of packing District 27 with the American Indian population, depriving District 26 of a fair opportunity to select American Indian legislators.

Because of the large number of linguistic minority voters, Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights act requires that any voting laws that affect that district be approved by the Justice Department.

"This historic settlement will remove some of the discriminatory barriers Native Americans have faced at the ballot box and ensure that their voting rights will be better protected in the future," said ACLU attorney Brian Sells.

A three-judge panel from the South Dakota U.S. District Court must now adopt the settlement agreement. The plaintiffs are confident that the decision will be in their favor. A federal judge previously ruled in favor of a similar case that involved the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

The redistricting of Districts 26 and 27 had the effect of discouraging any American Indian to run for office in District 26.

The Voting Rights Acts does not allow for discrimination on the basis of race, tribal and language minority status that would discourage people from participating in the political process. The original complaint argued that the majority American Indian residents of the two districts were subjected to that discrimination.

Shannon County, part of District 27 and home to the Pine Ridge Reservation, voted predominantly Democratic in the midterm elections, putting Sen. Tim Johnson over the edge for re-election.

This year in District 27, Paul Valandra and Jim Bradford were re-elected to the state legislature by an overwhelming 85 percent of the votes. Bradford is not enrolled but claims partial Lakota ancestry. Valandra is a Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud. Both are Democrats.

The late Richard "Dick" Hagen, Oglala Lakota, who died in September, remained on the ballot for State Senate and received 81 percent of the votes. Hagen was a Democrat.

In District 26, no American Indian ran for state office. Two Republicans, Cooper Garnos and Kent Juhnke, received 81 percent of the votes. Only one Democrat, Lowdon Heller, ran for the legislative office.

In districts where the majority of voters are American Indian, the Democrats have more clout. The state of South Dakota has a Republican-dominated legislature and Senate. The GOP also controls the governor's office.

District 28 is located in and near the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. The District was split in half four years ago. Since then, the District 28A House seat has been held by Tom Van Norman, attorney for and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Van Norman was reelected this year with a 65 percent majority.

The plaintiffs in the original case are Alfred Bone Shirt, Sicangu Lakota; Elaine Quick Bear Quiver, Oglala Lakota; Teresa Two Bulls, vice president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe and Vernon "Ike" Schmidt, vice president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.