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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

Two tribes in South Dakota and a voting rights group are suing four state officials, accusing them of failing to offer adequate voter registration services.

The complaint says South Dakota “is depriving thousand of tribal members and other citizens of their federally guaranteed opportunities to register to vote and to change their voter registration addresses when these citizens interact with state agencies.”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Four Directions filed a federal court complaint on Wednesday. The defendants named in the complaint are State Secretary Steve Barnett, Social Services Secretary Laurie Gill, Labor and Regulation Secretary Marcia Hultman and Public Safety Secretary Craig Price.

The Native American Rights Fund is representing the two tribes; Four Directions is represented by Demos. NARF attorney Jacqueline De León said South Dakota “routinely” underserves Native people when it comes to voter registration.

The complaint accuses the state officials of failing to provide voter registration applications during public benefits transactions that fall under the National Voter Registration Act, failing to update voter registration addresses when citizens report a change of address and failing to provide voter registration services to people who lack a driver’s license or social security number.

“Native Americans are not being offered the voter registration opportunities they are entitled to under law,” De León said in a statement. “We told the state that there was a problem, but they did not fix it. Apparently they did not see the disenfranchisement of Native voters and the silencing of Native voices as an important issue. We do.”

The lawsuit comes nearly three weeks after six Navajo plaintiffs filed an emergency motion in Arizona asking for mail-in ballots sent by Navajo Nation citizens postmarked on or before Election Day and received within 10 days to be counted. Arizona doesn’t allow mail-in ballots to be counted if they’re not received on Election Day. Some states like Nevada, Ohio and Virginia accept postmarked ballots that arrive after the election.

In a letter to Barnett dated May 20, NARF and Demos notified the defendants listed in the complaint that the state was not in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, among other “serious and ongoing violations.”

“Voter registration has been going down in South Dakota and it’s no accident - violating the NVRA is a major cause,” NARF attorney Natalie Landreth said in a statement. “This is what voter suppression looks like.”

Barnett’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s spokesman said they can’t comment on pending litigation. Barnett is an elected official while the other three were appointed by Noem.

To register to vote in South Dakota, residents must fill out a registration form, sign it and submit it to their county auditor 15 days before any election.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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