The U.S. Department of Justice is asking a federal judge in South Dakota to not dismiss a lawsuit that tribal members filed against Jackson County in which they claim the county doesn’t give equal voting access to Native American voters.
After the November election, the county’s attorneys filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier in Sioux Falls to toss the case arguing that the lawsuit does not contain proof that the county disenfranchised Native Americans, a protected class under the Voting Rights Act. But the federal agency believes the complaint shows otherwise.
The lawsuit was filed about two months before the election by four members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who are residents of Wanblee, a town of 725 people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The plaintiffs argue that the county’s practice of offering only in-person voter registration and in-person absentee voting at the county courthouse in Kadoka discriminates against Native Americans living in the portion of the county that’s within the reservation.
The lawsuit alleges that Native Americans have to drive twice as far to get to Kadoka as white residents of Jackson County and many factors make the half-hour trip more difficult, the Argus Leader reported.
After the complaint was filed, county officials reversed their initially decision to refuse to open a satellite office for voter registration and early voting in Wanblee, but the change didn’t end the legal battle.
U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said the county’s refusal to open the satellite office, the cost of which is eligible for reimbursement through Help America Vote Act funds _ was not a reasonable response.
“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 said. “We should be doing more, not less, to protect the right of every South Dakotan to vote in our elections.’’
In asking the judge to dismiss the case, the county’s attorneys said there are three ways to vote absentee: in person at the county auditor’s office, by direct mail or by delivery through a third party. They said Native Americans are not unduly affected by the lack of voting centers.
But the response from the Department of Justice to the county’s motion argues that the issues raised in the lawsuit are within the scope of the Voting Rights Act.