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South Dakota violates voting rights act

PIERRE, S.D. -The state of South Dakota is in violation of the Voter Rights
Act, according a federal court decision.

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state accused the legislature of
packing a legislative district to limit the number of American Indian
legislators, creating dilution of the district, and the court agreed.

State Attorney General Larry Long said he would meet with the state's
legislative leaders and the defendants to decide what the next move would
be, but he said an appeal is most likely. He didn't rule out the
possibility that the leadership may decide to abide by the court ruling,
redraw a district's boundaries and avoid the expense of a lengthy appeal.

U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier gave the state 45 days to submit
remedial proposals that are consistent with the court order. Regardless of
whether or not the state appeals and asks for a stay of execution the
proposals must be filed.

The court said the current plan drawn in 2001 by the state
Republican-controlled legislature violates Section II of the Voting Rights
Act of 1965.

"The current legislative plan impermissibly dilutes the Indian vote and
violates paragraph 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The South Dakota 2001 plan
resulted in unequal electoral opportunity for Indian voters," Judge
Schreier wrote.

Districts 26 and 27 are at the heart of the matter. District 27 covers most
of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations allowing for only three possible
American Indian legislators. District 26 is located partially on the Pine
Ridge and Rosebud reservations, and has a substantial but not a majority of
American Indian voters who argue they are not properly represented and
can't get preferred candidates elected.

"This is a landmark victory for the voting rights of Native Americans.
Redistricting has historically been used to disenfranchise minority
voters," said Byron Sells, attorney with the American Civil Liberties
Union's Voting Rights Project.

"Today's decision will help rectify this longstanding problem."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four Lakota defendants from Todd County
on the Rosebud Reservation and Shannon County on the Pine Ridge
Reservation. The new boundaries for District 27 resulted in a district
where 90 percent of the residents were American Indian. The plaintiffs
argued that by redrawing the lines of both Districts 26 and 27 it could
have created two districts where American Indians had a majority, thus the
potential for sending more American Indians to the legislature.

"This is milestone in correcting a system that has alienated my people from
the political process for decades. We have the right to have a say in the
direction of our future," said Alfred Boneshirt, Rosebud Sioux, lead
plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The legislative Republican leadership criticized the decision with
statements that defended the methods of drawing the new district lines.

Senate Majority Leader Eric Bogue, R-Faith, defended the district changes
when he said the legislature spent a great amount of time discussing the
new district lines and that race had nothing to do with the decision.

The argument by the plaintiffs is that race should have had a great deal to
do with the new districts.

Most of the legislative leadership was cautious about commenting on the
opinion until it had time to meet to decide the next step. Mathew Michels,
R-Yankton, House Speaker said the issues are complex and was grateful Judge
Schreier allowed 45 days to submit a plan.

"I can't help but admit I'm disappointed in the outcome," Bogue said.

Making the changes before the Nov. 2 election is impossible. Long said that
according to his calculations, given the time frame allowed by the court,
it could be Dec. 2 before the matter can be cleared up, and that is without
an appeal in process.

Long said his staff will have to read the 144-page decision thoroughly to
determine reasons for appeal and sort out the "front-burner issue." He will
focus on the substance of the written decision to search for the best legal
arguments that support an appeal.

The plaintiffs' argument that the state legislature is not responsive to
the needs of Indian country was accepted by Judge Schreier. There are four
American Indian state legislators, three from one district, District 27,
which includes the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations.

Legislation introduced by the American Indian legislators has a hard time
finding an approving vote, let alone a final vote in the state legislature.

A prepared statement from the ACLU stated that the decision, even though it
may not affect the Nov. 2 election, will build confidence among the
American Indian population and assist an increase in turnout at the polls.

This year Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and Republican John Thune are running in
a dead-heat race and Indian country voters may hold the balance of power in
their hands.

"The Voting Rights Act was created to ensure that state governments do not
discriminate against traditionally marginalized and oppressed populations.

"Unfortunately, South Dakota has repeatedly flouted this important law at
the expense of Native American citizens. We applaud the decision and we
will continue to monitor any electoral laws that may impact this
population," said Jennifer Ring, executive director of the ACLU for the
Dakotas.