Lower Brule Sioux Tribe voters win in voting rights case against Lyman County

Published: Aug. 12, 2022 at 3:10 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The U.S. District Court in South Dakota ruled on the urgency of protecting Native voters’ right to fair elections.

The Court ruled in favor of the tribal members in the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe v Lyman County case.

“Cooperation between the Tribe and the County, between Tribal members and non-Tribal members, is crucial to the future of Lyman County. If the County does not come forward with an appropriate remedial plan, this Court can impose its own,” said Chief Judge Roberto A. Lange in the Aug. 11 decision.

“The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe remains ready to help Lyman County make positive changes on and off-reservation: let’s get started,” said plaintiff, voter, and Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Vice Chairman, Neil Russell.

The decision acknowledges that the county’s current redistricting plan would dilute the voting power of the Native community and requires the county commissioners to create a new plan for the county elections in November.

“This decision affirms that gatekeepers must make inclusive changes protected by the Voting Rights Act in a timely fashion and acknowledges that everyone benefits when local governments cooperate with tribal governments like the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe,” said Native American Rights Fund (NARF) Staff Attorney Samantha Kelty.

Voting system ensured reservation voters could never elect a candidate of their choice to the Board of Commissioners

In May, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe voters filed a lawsuit against Lyman County commissioners for delaying the rollout of fair election districts. While over 40% of Lyman County voters live on the Lower Brule Reservation, an unfair at-large voting system ensured reservation voters could never elect a single candidate of their choice to the Board of Commissioners, according to a press release from NARF.

“The judge ordered the county to work with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and I hope they will take this opportunity as fresh start to achieve a shared goal of preparing to hold fair 2022 elections,” said plaintiff, voter, and County Board of Commissioners candidate, Stephanie Bolman.

The 2020 redistricting process required changing the at-large voting system and giving Native voters an opportunity to select two of the five county commissioners in order to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“I hope the judge’s ruling encourages the County to cooperate with the Tribe to create an election that includes all of us,” said plaintiff, voter, and County Board of Commissioners candidate, Ben Janis.

Milestone in Native representation at county level

The decision ensures that all voters will have a meaningful say in their representation and it reverses a history in Lyman County, which has never seen Native representation at the county level.

“This decision acknowledges what Native American voters in Lyman County have experienced for decades, a pattern in which Tribal voters aren’t on equal footing and in which they do not have a fair chance to elect county leaders who address their issues,” said Tara Ford, Senior Counsel at Public Counsel. “We’re hopeful that with this decision, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe voters will now be able to elect leaders that understand the needs of their community and who will help shape their future.”

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and voters are represented by NARF, Public Counsel, the Law Office of Bryan Sells, the Law Office of Randy Seiler, and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Read the Preliminary Injunction HERE.

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