Obama Administration Intervenes In Native American Voting Rights Lawsuit

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kristi Eaton

The U.S. Department of Justice has intervened in a lawsuit accusing a South Dakota county of disenfranchising Native Americans living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, arguing the case should move forward because the issues in question fall under the still-enforced sections of the Voting Rights Act.

In the months leading up the November election, Native Voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit against Jackson County, South Dakota accusing it of requiring Native Americans to travel often prohibitively long distances to vote instead of opening a satellite office on the reservation. In response to the litigation, Jackson County opened a satellite center for voter registration and early voting in the town of Wanblee on the reservation, but the legal action continued in order to ensure the voting rights would be maintained for future elections.

County officials filed a motion to dismiss the litigation after the November midterm, arguing that Native Americans still have three ways to vote absentee including traveling to the county auditor’s office which is more than 27 miles away from Wanblee. But when the DOJ intervened, it said the issues presented in the lawsuit should be considered as violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which designates Native Americans as a protected class.

“It shows the Native Americans that the Department of Justice is actually coming to light to the plight of equality of the Native American vote,” OJ Semans, director of the Native voting rights group Four Directions, told ThinkProgress about the government’s decision to become involved in the lawsuit.

The suit against Jackson County is unique because it is the first in which Native Americans are asking for the DOJ to reestablish preclearance under the Voting Rights Act since the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated that requirement in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision.

“If we’re able to show the court that the lack of providing equality at the ballot box was because of race, then they are required to be under the watchful eye of the Department of Justice for the next ten years,” Semans said. “Section 3 is what we’re using in light of Sections 4 and 5 disappearing to put the county back under the Department of Justice.”

Semans said he is hopeful about the result of the lawsuit considering Four Directions’ prior success in similar litigation in which Shannon and Fall River Counties agreed to settle with Native Americans, giving them most of what they asked for including satellite voting centers on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

South Dakota counties that open satellite voting centers on reservations receive reimbursements through Help America Vote Act funds, which are specifically designated to expand voter access to groups including Native Americans. As a result, counties’ refusal to open satellite offices has no reasonable explanation, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said.

“Let’s be clear, South Dakota does not have a proud history when it comes to providing Native Americans an equal right to vote,” Johnson told the Argus Leader. “We should be doing more, not less, to protect the right of every South Dakotan to vote in our elections.”

Like other Natives across the state, most Pine Ridge tribal members in Jackson County are living in poverty and are unlikely to have the resources to travel to vote in the location of the county seat, the lawsuit alleges.

“Native Americans in Jackson County also lag their white counterparts on a variety of socioeconomic measures, including access to reliable transportation,” the DOJ said in its brief. “As a result, Native American citizens residing in Jackson County face significantly greater burdens and have substantially less opportunity than white citizens with respect to casting in-person absentee ballots and using in-person voter registration.”

While litigation is moving forward in Jackson County, Four Directions has not taken legal action against county officials in Buffalo County— another place where South Dakota is attempting to suppress the Native American vote. Unlike in Jackson County where white residents actually make up a majority of the county’s population, the county seat in Buffalo County is in the town of Gann Valley which has a population of less than a dozen people.

“The hypocrisy of it is that we would be picking on a white minority in Buffalo County if we were to sue them under the Voting Rights Act,” Semans said. “The best thing to happen there is if the majority would take a petition to move the county office [to the reservation] and in turn they can always supply a satellite office in Gann Valley.”