Native Rights Two-Step—Tribal Voting Access Inches Forward for Sioux in South Dakota

Missouri River view from the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe's South Dakota reservation

South Dakota is a state where a former attorney general called applying the Voting Rights Act to Native Americans an "absurdity" and advised the top elections official to ignore it. Where some counties prohibited tribal members from voting and holding non-tribal offices until the 1980s. Where counties may set up polling places far from reservations. Where a sheriff slouching in a precinct doorway in 2014 chilled Native voter turnout.

Where a local elections official dismissed barriers to the Native vote, saying, “A person has to make an effort.”

Polling-place doors have cracked open in recent years, thanks to federal lawsuits and civil-rights complaints, Department of Justice intervention, and the hard work of Four Directions, a civil-rights organization headquartered on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Officials in the state, including Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, have have helped push the door open, notably by distributing federal Help America Vote Act money to counties for purposes including setting up satellite voting sites on reservations.

Yet, there is still plenty of work to do, said Brandon Sazue, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, whose reservation lies mid-state along the Missouri River. "We still don't get an equal vote. We are still fighting for our rights."

The math backs up Sazue's assertion: In 2018, Crow Creek will have some of the worst access in the state. Leading up to the primary election, tribal voters will have no polling place at all in their capital, Fort Thompson, during South Dakota's 46-day early-voting and late-registration period, though they will be able to cast a ballot on primary election day itself. Matters are only slightly better for the general election, when Crow Creek will have a polling place for 9 days out of the 46, in addition to election day.

Crow Creek's Sazue greets delegation from other Sioux tribes
So that's 11 days of access for Crow Creek tribal members, when off-reservation voters in South Dakota have 94 days. In this large rural state, the ability to register and vote over an extended period of time is popular and has increased voter turnout wherever it was provided.

According to Krebs, the counties decide what they want to offer and make their requests to the state's HAVA grant board. Efforts to contact the commissioners of Buffalo County, which overlaps Crow Creek and administers elections there, were rebuffed.

Buffalo County is one of several around South Dakota that faced federal lawsuits and civil-rights complaints before they improved ballot-box access for Native voters. Others include Dewey County, which overlaps the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's reservation, Jackson County, which overlaps northeastern Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Fall River and Oglala Lakota (formerly Shannon) counties, which overlap the rest of Pine Ridge. 

"This struggle is all too familiar," said Sazue. "We want equal rights, not just a little more rights."

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