Stephanie Woodard
Residents of the portion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that overlaps Jackson County, South Dakota, must travel to the off-reservation town of Kadoka, shown above, to register and early vote in national elections. The trip is, on average, twice as long for the almost entirely Native American population of Pine Ridge as it is for the mostly white citizens of the rest of county, says a voting-rights lawsuit and the Department of Justice's Statement of Interest supporting the suit.

Native Voting Plaintiffs Got It Right, Says DOJ

Stephanie Woodard

The U.S. Department of Justice has submitted a Statement of Interest in the federal voting-rights lawsuit, Poor Bear v. Jackson County (South Dakota). The agency supports the Oglala plaintiffs’ allegation that restricting voter registration and in-person absentee voting (often called “early voting”) to an off-reservation county seat makes it difficult for them to vote and is discriminatory. The statement also cites the need to ensure that the Voting Rights Act “is properly interpreted and…vigorously and uniformly enforced.”

“Many of us lack the vehicles and gas money to get to the county seat in Kadoka,” explained lead plaintiff, Oglala Sioux Vice President Tom Poor Bear. He and other plaintiffs live in the town of Wanblee, in the portion of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that overlaps Jackson County. They want a Wanblee satellite voting office offering the same election services that the primarily white population of the county receives in Kadoka. They also want the county to come under special Justice Department scrutiny via the VRA’s Section 3.

U.S. Attorney Brendon Johnson described the state’s poor record on Native enfranchisement as long-term and said, “We should be doing more, not less, to protect the right of every South Dakotan to vote.”

RELATED: Oglala VP: ‘Our Civil Rights Are Being Violated’

Plaintiffs’ attorney Matt Rappold, of Rappold Law Office, in Rapid City, was pleased: “The Justice Department’s action speaks volumes on the merits of our case and our position that Jackson County has systematically denied its Native citizens their right to vote.” Rappold’s high-profile team for the suit includes international law firm Dechert LLP and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formed at the request of President John Kennedy.

For its part, the county claims that the Voting Rights Act does not cover early voting. Not so, says the Justice Department: “If Congress had meant to exempt a category of voting procedures…it could have done so.” The county has also claimed possible danger to election workers driving between Kadoka and Wanblee. “You don’t know who’s traveling the roads these days,” elections official Vicki Wilson told ICTMN.

RELATED: Supreme Court Decision Rolls Back Voting Rights for S.D. Indians

Leading up to Election 2014, the parties to the suit negotiated a temporary solution: a Wanblee satellite voting office that was open for less than one-quarter of the days of the Kadoka office.

RELATED: Surprise 11th-Hour Native-Vote Agreements

Rappold didn’t foresee a negotiated solution to the lawsuit itself: “There’s no talk of settling.” The next step will be U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreir’s ruling on Jackson County’s recent motion to dismiss the lawsuit, he said.

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