Tom Shortbull. Photo: Lance Cheung / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tom Shortbull: Suppressing the Indian vote is a long tradition in America

Gerrymandering in Rapid City and in the state of South Dakota

By Tom Shortbull
President, Oglala Lakota College
For Native Sun News Today

Indian people like other minorities in this country have been victimized by states seeking to suppress the impact of the minority vote.

One of the ways that have been used to suppress the impact of minority voting is gerrymandering which divides up a large minority population in a geographic area that would warrant the inclusion in one voting district, but are instead placed in multiple voting districts.

The practice of gerrymandering had been used against the Lakota people in South Dakota for many years. I became aware of the practice of gerrymandering against Lakota people when I was the executive director of the Task Force on. Indian-State Government Relations from 1973-75.

In 1974, I authored a Task Force report that gerrymandering was occurring in southwestern South Dakota that involved the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. Voters on these two reservations should have been included in one voting district, but were instead divided up into three voting districts which had the effect of diluting the Indian vote. I recommended that the two largest counties – Shannon on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Todd on the Rosebud Reservation be combined into one voting district.

The Task Force decided not to put forward my recommendation to the South Dakota Legislature due to political reasons. However, my proposal for creating a voting district with a large Lakota population did become a reality. In 1980, the U.S Justice Department required the state of South Dakota to create a legislative district that encompassed both Shannon and Todd counties, and this resulted in nearly 86 percent of the voting district being Indian voters. It was the Voting Rights Act that forced South Dakota to create the new legislative voting district that included the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservation.


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In 1982, I was elected the first state senator in the newly created legislative district, and I became the first Indian state senator to represent two Indian reservations in South Dakota.

Another example of racial gerrymandering in South Dakota is the North Rapid area in Rapid City. I received the following information from Tom Katus who was a state senator representing one of the legislative districts in Rapid City. North Rapid, including Lakota Homes and Sioux Addition, has long been split into three different legislative districts.

Rapid City has the third largest population center in South Dakota, following Pine Ridge and Rosebud. At least 75 percent of Rapid City's Native population probably resides in the North Rapid area. If North Rapid were a single legislative district, it would clearly be a legislative district with a large Indian population with a potential to elect an Indian state senator and two House of Representative members

Recently, there have been court decisions that have ruled that racial gerrymandering has been occurring in states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama with the black vote being gerrymandered. In addition, there has been the recent court case in Pennsylvania that ruled that many of the congressional legislative districts had been drawn in Pennsylvania to favor the election of Republicans. These partisan legislative districts violated many fair processes that plainly violated the free-and-equal elections clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The newly drawn district will likely result in the potential of Black candidates being elected as U.S. House of Representative members.

This gerrymandering of legislative districts to dilute the minority vote is part of much broader plan for White America to suppress the impact of the minority vote in many state elections. The reason that White American is doing this is that they will do anything that allows white and conservative people to continue to control this country.

Other methods to suppress the minority vote include the photo identification law that puts an inordinate burden on poor minorities to obtain the photo ids. Also, lessening the early voting opportunities for minority voters, making it more difficult for minorities to get to polling places, and long voting lines that discourage people from voting are all part of the means to suppress the minority vote.

On February 27, 2013, I took an active role prior to and subsequent to the U.S. . Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in Shelby County v Holder, a case that sought to eliminate Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The argument made by states seeking to overturn Section 5 of the voting rights act is that it was no longer necessary, because states have implemented all the protections needed to protect minority voting rights in the states that fell under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder did eventually eliminate Section 5 of the Voting Rights in this case.

I took a strong position that Section 5 must not be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, because it is clear that states will revert to other practices to suppress the voting rights of Indian people and other minorities. The pre-clearance requirement acted as a deterrent with the states that sought to suppress minority voting rights.

Clearly, the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong in its ruling in the Shelby County case because states have reverted back to exactly how the opponents of the Shelby case saw what the states would do to suppress the minority vote.

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