Court Says Sioux Voting Rights Suit Will Proceed

     RAPID CITY, S.D. – A lawsuit alleging that Jackson County has impaired Native Americans’ right to vote on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota will move forward, a federal judge ruled on May 1.
     Plaintiff Thomas Poor Bear, Vice President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, filed the lawsuit in September 2014, alleging that Jackson County’s refusal to open a satellite voter registration office on the reservation amounted to discrimination against Native American voters, many of whom did not have transportation to the county seat for voting.
     The defendants – Jackson County, County Auditor Vicki Wilson, and County Commissioners Glen Bennett, Larry Denke, Larry Johnston, Jim Stillwell and Ron Twiss – responded by filing a motion to dismiss, arguing “the complaint contains no facts showing that the plaintiffs were unable to vote absentee or vote by regular ballot.”
     They contended members of the tribe suffered no injury “even if voting could be made more convenient.”
     But U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier disagreed.
     “Plaintiffs are not simply asserting that it would be easier to vote absentee in-person than voting absentee by mail or voting on election day in person,” she wrote in a 26-page opinion. “Rather, the crux of plaintiffs’ claim is that the location of in-person absentee voting in Jackson County interacts with the socioeconomic factors of poverty and lack of access to transportation to deprive plaintiffs and other Native Americans who would like to vote absentee in-person – particularly at the time of registration -of an equal opportunity to vote.”
     Schreier also shot down defendants’ claim that this lawsuit would open the “floodgates” for similar complaints from voters dissatisfied with local voting procedures. “The fact that one county may have more satellite locations than another, or that one state may offer absentee voting while another does not, is missing a key element of [plaintiffs’] claim: less opportunity for a protected group to participate in the political process,” she wrote.
     Although defendants cited cost as motivating their decision not to open a satellite office, Bear claimed funding was available through the Help America Vote Act.
     “It is reasonable to infer that defendants knew that the funding justification was not true at the time they made the decision not to establish the satellite office,” Schreier wrote.
     “I think the court’s decision pretty much speaks for itself regarding the issue,” plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Rappold told Courthouse News Service in an interview Monday. “We’re pleased with the result, and we ultimately hope to prevail on the case, so that Jackson County will agree to provide equal access to voting as the Voting Rights Act requires.”
     Defense counsel did not respond to requests for comment.

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