Oglala Lakota County
In November 2014, Native voters approved a new name for the county encompassing the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota: Oglala Lakota County. Photo: Neeta Lind
Tribes and tribal citizens accuse South Dakota of violating voting laws
Friday, July 9, 2021

Two new individual plaintiffs and the Lakota People’s Law Project have joined the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux tribes in suing the state of South Dakota, claiming state officials have routinely violated a federal law that requires states to help their citizens register to vote.

The Lakota People’s Law Project, Rosebud Sioux tribal citizen Kimberly Dillon and Standing Rock Sioux tribal citizen Hoksila White Mountain have joined the two Sioux tribes in a lawsuit that was filed in September 2020, according to an amended filing submitted to the U.S. District Court Thursday by legal firms the Native American Rights Fund and Demos.

The lawsuit alleges South Dakota state officials and employees have violated the National Voter Registration Act, also known as Motor-Voter, which requires states to help register citizens to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state-run public assistance agencies.

“With this suit, Native American voters seek to ensure that the American freedom to vote is not restricted by negligent actions by the state of South Dakota,” said Oglala Sioux Tribe President Kevin Killer.

Kimberly Dillon
“I was denied the opportunity to cast a vote in the 2020 presidential election because the state didn’t process my voter registration,” said Kimberly Dillon, citizen of Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “How many other people faced this violation of our basic freedom to vote? We cannot allow voter suppression to continue in South Dakota or anywhere in Native America.” Image courtesy Native American Rights Fund

The plaintiffs allege many eligible Native voters in South Dakota never had a chance to register to vote at state agencies and many who did complete registrations at state agencies could not vote because the state agencies never sent their applications to local elections officials.

Native people make up about nine percent of the South Dakota population.

“I was denied the opportunity to cast a vote in the 2020 presidential election because the state didn’t process my voter registration,” said Dillon of Rapid City. “How many other people faced this violation of our basic freedom to vote? We cannot allow voter suppression to continue in South Dakota or anywhere in Native America.”

The alleged voter suppression in South Dakota may mirror nationwide voter suppression efforts.

As of May 14, the Brennan Center for Justice had tracked the enactment of at least 22 bills with restrictive provisions in 14 states, a dramatic increase from prior years. But in South Dakota, the main problem isn’t the creation of newly restrictive laws, it’s the failure to abide by voter protections already on the books, according to the lawsuit.

“We see routine violations of federal law,” said Chase Iron Eyes, co-director and lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project. “In 2018 and 2020, we worked hard with tribal governments and members to ensure that the voices of Native people were heard at the ballot box. Unfortunately, in many cases, systemic discrimination prevented that. That’s why we’re joining this suit. We’re battling a long history of racism and current nationwide efforts to install new Jim Crow-style laws.”

South Dakota has a long and troubled history of disenfranchising Native American voters. In violation of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, South Dakota prevented Native people from voting until the 1940s. In 1984, the county auditor in Fall River, which includes part of the Pine Ridge Reservation, refused to accept voter registrations from Native American citizens, according to the lawsuit.

“Native voters in South Dakota have found it harder and harder to perform the simple act of registering to vote. As the number of registered voters plummets, the state has done nothing to fix this systemic problem,” said Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney M. Bordeaux.

According to the lawsuit, between the 2004 and 2016 elections, South Dakota saw an 84 percent decrease in the number of voter registration applications from public assistance agencies, despite an 80 percent increase in people receiving benefits from those agencies. In 2004, up to 13 percent of those receiving food assistance benefits also received voter registration assistance. By 2016, that number had fallen to just over 1 percent.

According to the lawsuit, state officials also have failed to make it easier for Native residents to acquire state identification cards or access polling places. For example, though about 90 percent of the population of Buffalo County lives on the Crow Creek Reservation, to register to vote, reservation residents must drive as far as 90 miles round trip to Gann Valley — populated only by about a dozen residents, all non-Native.

“The state is aware that many of our people lack the transportation and means to travel to faraway polls, yet they do nothing,” Bordeaux said. “The state’s inactions to address registration and polling barriers minimize the impact our votes could have, and we cannot let them get away with it.”

Natives living on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota have to drive an average of nearly 45 miles to obtain a state ID, compared to about 17 miles for non-Natives, according to the lawsuit.

South Dakota counties have even chosen to forgo federal funding rather than service Native voters. Jackson County refused to use federal Help America Vote Act funding to create a satellite polling office in Wanblee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, until forced to do so by a federal lawsuit.

“As Black, brown, and Native communities across the country face a racist push to undermine the basic freedom to vote, South Dakota must live up to its obligations under the National Voter Registration Act — a critical federal voting rights protection that has helped millions of Americans get on the voting rolls over the past 30 years,” said Adam Lioz, senior counsel for Demos.

Native American Rights Fund: A Conversation on Voting Rights and Indian Country