Federal Lawsuit Brings Early Voting Site to Eagle Nest

Federal Lawsuit Brings Early Voting Site to Eagle Nest

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WANBLEE, South Dakota -– Residents living in Jackson County on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation now have a satellite voting office available to them on the campus of Crazy Horse School.

The office was opened this week as the result of a ruling on a federal complaint filed by four members of the Oglala Lakota Nation against Jackson County, including the County Commissioners and County Auditor. All of the plaintiffs reside in the community of Wanblee, or Eagle Nest District, located in Jackson County. Don Doyle, Cheryl D. Red Willow and James Red Willow, were joined by Tom Poor Bear, the Oglala Lakota Nation Vice-President, in filing the complaint in United States District Court last month.

The failure of Jackson County officials to establish a satellite office giving residents of Wanblee and the surrounding area violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to the September 18 complaint. According to Court documents, on May 6, 2013 Vice-President Poor Bear wrote a letter to Jim Stilwell, who serves as the Jackson County Commission Chairman, requesting both the County Commission and County Auditor to establish a staffed office in the community of Wanblee for all primary and general in person absentee voting, commencing with the 2014 election cycle.

In addition to the depressed socio-economic status of Native Americans in Jackson County, there is a long history of racial discrimination against Native Americans in South Dakota, including discrimination in voting, according to court documents. When South Dakota became a state in 1889, the right to vote was largely restricted to free white men and it was illegal to create precincts on Indian reservations. Although the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924 giving full rights of citizenship to Native Americans, South Dakota continued to ban Native Americans from voting or holding office until the 1940s.

Native Americans in "unorganized counties" were forbidden from voting until the mid-1970s and residents of unorganized counties were barred from holding county office until 1980. Court documents state that the portion of Jackson County which is part of the Pine Ridge Reservation, in which Wanblee is located, was a part of such an "unorganized" county, Washabaugh, until 1983.

Furthermore, the court record states that officials in South Dakota have attempted to design districts so as to reduce the impact of Native American votes, either by drawing districts so as to exclude land owned by tribal members, and only include white voters, see United States v. Day County. In addition, a federal court found racially polarized voting in South Dakota in Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine. Jackson County was within the area at issue in the case. Due in large part to the disparity in socio-economic status and the history of racial discrimination, Native American election turnout has historically been very low in South Dakota, despite the fact that the state typically ranks high overall in voter turnout.

The lack of privately owned vehicles, as well as money to put gas in vehicles, is often hard to come by in an area consistently ranked among the top five poorest counties in the United States. According to the initial complaint, the area also lacks adequate public transportation. Thus, the ability of Jackson County residents living in Wanblee to travel 30 miles or more from their homes is severely hampered by the lack of transportation. For many residents, it is impossible to get to the county seat of Kadoka to register to vote and/or cast an early ballot. Furthermore, elderly tribal members living on fixed incomes may find it especially hard to travel long distances to vote on Election Day.

In South Dakota, any registered voter is entitled to vote by absentee ballot, either by requesting a ballot to be mailed to them or by appearing in person at the office of the County Auditor. Absentee voting begins 46 days before an election and is offered under South Dakota’s “no excuse” absentee voting, according to the original complaint. Residents are allowed to register to vote up until 15 days before the Election Day.

According to Matt Rappold, attorney for the plaintiffs, funding for the satellite office in Wanblee is currently available under South Dakota's Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Court documents show South Dakota revised its HAVA plan in 2014 to provide that "a county may be allowed to use HAVA funds to set-up an additional in-person satellite absentee voting location" if the jurisdiction has (l) "50% more individuals below the poverty line than the rest of the county" and (2) the voters living in the jurisdiction "live, on average, 50% farther from the existing county seat or other satellite location than the rest of the county." The Revised HAVA Plan specifies that Jackson County satisfies the criteria for establishing additional in-person satellite absentee voting locations.

According to Jackson County Auditor Vickie Wilson, 39 residents of the Wanblee area visited the satellite office on October 20 to register to vote. Located just south of Crazy Horse School, the office will remain open from 9am to 5pm through November 3 and provides area residents a place to cast an in-person absentee ballot, saving them a 30 mile drive to the Jackson County Auditor’s office in Kadoka, SD. Voters will be assisted by County staff members Verda Anderson and Rita Barber. For more information you may call the County Auditor’s office in Kadoka at 605-837-2422.

Courtesy photo