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Voters ousted from city

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LAKE ANDES, S.D. - Imagine opening your mail to find out you can no longer
vote in the city in which you thought you lived; then finding out that you
no longer live within the city limits.

Many people who received letters were American Indian. That fed the
perception that racist forces were at work.

South Dakota itself is under a voting act watch. A federal court will soon
decide the fate of a voting district in the heart of Indian country and a
small border town awaits its fate for its alleged redrawing of voting
districts in Martin, which borders the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

Mostly American Indian voters in the small reservation town of Lake Andes
were informed by letter from the city finance office that after a review of
the voter registration list they no longer lived within the city limits.

The letter was dated Aug. 12 and a city-wide election was scheduled for
Aug. 31 on a tax issue. Ward boundaries were not important, but city limits
boundaries were.

People who received the letter believed they lived within the city limits.
Now there is a perception that American Indian voters are being singled out
for recent aggressive involvement in the election process. American Indians
have voted in larger numbers and run for city and county offices.

The American Indian-preferred candidates have not been elected in Lake
Andes or Charles Mix County. Some American Indian residents were told they
couldn't vote in the city election because they lived in tribal housing and
not in the city. That and the newly imposed photo ID law prompted the
lawsuit.

Lake Andes Mayor Merritt Stegmeier said the lawsuit was the catalyst that
caused the city limit boundaries to be researched. For more than 100 years
the city limits had never been challenged and a variety of maps used by the
city did not, Stegmeier said, reflect the real and legal city limits.

"For some reason nobody questioned it and for some reason they [many residents] were shown to live inside the city limits," Stegmeier said.

"The exterior boundary has not changed; it has always been that way. But
when that was questioned in the last city election, in June, the records
were set straight," Stegmeier said.

No one, the mayor, nor County auditor Norm Cihak could say who or what
action prompted the city limit boundary review. Cihak said the county had
the boundaries correct, but the city had given him a map that was wrong.
Stegmeier said they used a map that was in the auditor's office that was a
zoning map, not a ward or boundary map.

The residents of the housing area are now located in White Swan Township
and not the city.

Tension between the American Indian residents and the non-Indian power
structure of the city continues. American Indian residents, who make up
more than half of the population of the city, do not have representation on
the city council or on the county commission.

Secretary of State Chris Nelson said it was simple case of stating where
the actual boundary was located. He said that somewhere in the city records
there had to be a written description of the boundaries of the city. "What
confuses me from the state level is there should not be a discussion of
where the city boundary is," Nelson said.

Nelson said it was illegal for the city to lessen the size of the city by
an ordinance.

Voting rights advocates look at preferred candidates of minority or
American Indian groups never being elected as an indicator that something
is wrong.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been notified of the latest
development. Jennifer Ring, executive director for the ACLU of the Dakotas
said, "There is an ongoing interest in election issues in Lake Andes."

"I know they have done some game playing. At one point that had the most
obvious situation I've seen with a street where three houses were outside
the city limits, yet one was declared inside...

"There are a growing number of American Indians buying homes in Lake
Andes."

"The dynamics have really changed, still we have nobody on the city
council," said Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Women's Resource
Center in Lake Andes.

Asetoyer had difficulty establishing the shelter for abused women within
the city limits. She said she was shown a map dated 1984 and another map
dated 2002 that showed the same boundaries.

Stegmeier said if the lawsuit had not come up, the boundaries would never
have been looked at. "Now that the question was raised, we have to make it
right. People would still be voting and they were never in the city."

Services will still be provided for the people who live within the area now
removed from the city, Stegmeier said. Water, sewer and garbage will be
covered, but road maintenance, other than snow removal will not be
provided. The Yankton Sioux Tribe pays for some of the road maintenance.

Stegmeier said since he took office a year ago he has been blamed for
everything that goes wrong. "I'm on the defensive all the time." He would
not reveal who or what group was the cause of his problems.

How it all started, Asetoyer said, was when American Indians began to not
just run for office, they came out in large numbers to vote.

"As soon as we started to run people dug in their heels," she said.

Stegmeier said attempts were made to bring all sides together to talk and
listen, but, he added, those meetings have not taken place. "As far as I'm
concerned they [the American Indian community] are not willing to talk. No
one comes in to listen or work on problems."

What the American Indian community perceives is racism, and many people
don't know why. If it weren't for the American Indian population there
would be no new middle school, or track field or new gymnasium. Impact aid,
because of the large number of American Indian students at the school,
helped pay for those new buildings, Asetoyer said.

"There are old ideas of how they see us and what we do and don't do. They
refuse to acknowledge that we have any rights at all in the political
process," Asetoyer said.

Cihak said the voter registration list had been corrected and those who
once thought they lived within the city limits are now in White Swan
Township. The change came with no fanfare, no official notice in the county
newspaper.

In the past when people came to the county auditor to register to vote, the
auditor would look at a map given him by the city and determine in which
ward the voter lived. There was never any reason to research the actual and
legal boundaries of the city, Cihak said. Not until the lawsuit.

"The county had things squared except the voter registration list. But I
was following what I was given," Cihak said.