Appellate Court Rules Voting Violation in South Dakota
ST. LOUIS ñ The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision and ruled that the town of Martin, S.D., did in fact violate the Voting Rights Act by diluting voting districts that left American Indian voters without political power. The Appellate Court opinion stated that the lower court erred in the original ruling when it noted that the non-Indian voter bloc did not usually vote in such a manner as to defeat American Indian voter-preference candidates. Martin is situated between the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations and is at least 45 percent American Indian. The original lawsuit argued that American Indian voters were unable to elect a preferred candidate to serve on the townís council because of districting that diluted the American Indian vote. Senior Judge Gerald Heaney, writing for the majority, agreed with the District Court that the first two of three thresholds needed to prove a voting rights violation was met. The District Court determined that the third threshold needed to prove a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was not met. The Appellate Court disagreed; and in its opinion the third threshold was also met, and therefore the court overturned the lower court ruling. The three thresholds were established by the Supreme Court in the 1986 Thornburg v. Gingles decision. The first of the three Gingles thresholds, as they are referred to, require that the minority be sufficiently large enough to constitute a majority in a single-member district. The second threshold requires that the minority show that it is politically cohesive. The third threshold, which the lower court rejected, must demonstrate that the non-minority, or in this case non-Indian, voters turned out in such a manner as to defeat the preferred candidate of the American Indian voter. The three judge panel found 2 ñ 1 that the third threshold was indeed met as proved by the plaintiffs. ìThe Native American community in Martin, and especially the LaCreek District Civil Rights Committee, have worked so hard, for so long, to change their community into a good place to live and raise their children and grandchildren,î said Jennifer Ring, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas. ìI am pleased that the 8th Circuit recognized their right to finally have a say in how their town is run. Nothing beats an actual seat at the table.î In 2002, Martin created district lines that were found to dilute the American Indian vote. Martin is in Bennett County, the seat of the escalation of the American Indian vote in the state with the help of the LaCreek District Civil Rights Committee. LaCreek is one of nine districts of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Martin argued that the redrawn district lines were not intended as racial discrimination, but merely redrawn because of a shift in population. There are three precincts in Martin, each with two council members. Only twice since 1984 has an American Indian-preferred candidate been elected to the council, and each time the person ran unopposed. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Steven Colloton argued that the District Court did not err in its decision. Colloton wrote that the plaintiffs did not establish that the non-Indian majority voted in a bloc for the sole purpose of defeating the minority preferred candidate. Colloton wrote that the District Court has a ìparticular familiarity with the indigenous political reality.î Martin has a population of just less than 1,100 people ñ 45 percent of them American Indian ñ which also has 36 percent of the voting age population. Martin had a net loss of 24 people as of the 2000 U.S. Census, but the American Indian population gained 100 residents. The town of Martin has been the focus of racial tensions for many years. In the 1990s, marches were organized to protest the practice of what was alleged to be an offensive homecoming coronation ceremony. That practice has been changed. The Martin elementary schools showed a 90 percent American Indian population. This year, for the first time, a pow wow was held for school-aged youths in a show of reconciliation and solidarity. Three different redistricting plans were submitted to Martin by the ACLU. Two of them redrew the lines but were unacceptable to the town of Martin because, as town officials argued, they were not viable or stable. The third plan would create an at-large district for Martin. With six council members, three would be elected on alternate election cycles. This, the plaintiffs asserted, along with the other two plans would give them an opportunity to elect a preferred candidate; the Appellate Court agreed. Martin argued that the cohesiveness of the American Indian vote is due to political position rather than racial. The American Indian vote in South Dakota generally favors Democratic candidates and issues. The appellate majority opinion disagreed with that argument based on evidence provided by the plaintiffs. The case was remanded to the District Court to finalize the decision. Should the District Court agree with the Appellate Court findings, Martin would be given a chance to redistrict, or the court will impose one of the three plans originally submitted. The reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act made it through the House Judiciary Committee without amendments as the VRAís bipartisan supporters had hoped. The bill is expected to pass in the House without amendments, as it did in the committee.