Oglala Sioux Want to Vote on the Rez

By LACEY LOUWAGIE, Courthouse News Service

RAPID CITY, S.D. (CN) – Oglala Sioux claim in court that Jackson County, S.D., is obstructing Native Americans’ right to vote by refusing to set up a voter registration and balloting site on the remote Pine Ridge reservation.
Thomas Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and three other tribal members sued Jackson County and its Board of Commissioners on Sept. 18, in Federal Court.
Reservation residents have to travel at least 27 miles to the county seat in Kadoka to register and vote, which is twice as far as white residents travel, according to the complaint.
Poor Bear asks that Jackson County set up a satellite voting office in the reservation town of Wanblee.
Lack of transportation compounds the problem.
The Census Bureau reported that nearly one in four Native Americans in Jackson County has no access to a vehicle, but that every white household does.
According to the Oglala Lakota Nation website: “Many people walk to reach their destinations,” but distance between communities and harsh South Dakota weather often make this difficult or impossible.
“What we filed on Thursday really isn’t anything new – it’s just happening in a different way,” plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew Rappold said in an interview.
“The record speaks for itself in how the state government has tried to make the right to vote inaccessible to Native American people.”
In 2004, U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier detailed South Dakota’s long history of voting discrimination in a 144-page opinion in Bone Shirt vs. Hazeltine , which claimed that South Dakota redistricting diluted the impact of Native American votes.
Before 1924, Native Americans could vote only after “severing tribal relations,” Schreier wrote.
Even after the 1924 American Indian Citizenship Act gave Native Americans full citizenship rights, South Dakota continued to ban them from voting or holding office until the 1940s.
Native Americans in the part of the Pine Ridge Reservation now in Jackson County could not vote until 1983, because people from “unorganized counties” – counties attached to other counties for judicial purposes – were forbidden to vote.
South Dakota’s Help America Vote Act task force supports the measure to place a voting office on the reservation, and has even reserved funds for Jackson County to do so, the complaint states.
Nonetheless, minutes from a County Commissioners’ meeting in June this year, cited in the complaint, state: “This would be an additional expense for Jackson County.”
Jackson County Auditor Vicki Williams, a defendant in the new case, declined to comment on the county’s position.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Southwestern South Dakota encompasses 11,000 square miles and spans three counties – Bennett, Shannon, and Jackson. It is home to more than 18,000, of which 88 percent are Native American, according to the 2010 census. The nationally famous Badlands of South Dakota also lie on Pine Ridge Reservation land.
About 39 percent of Native Americans live below the poverty line in Jackson County, which is nearly twice the percentage of whites, according to the Census Bureau’s 2006-2010 American Community Survey.
“Due … to the disparity in socio-economic status and the history of racial discrimination, Native American election turnout has historically been very low in South Dakota,” the complaint states, though South Dakota voter turnout is high overall.
Poor Bear wants Jackson County ordered to establish a satellite office on the reservation before the November elections, which will include gubernatorial candidates and constitutional amendments.
He claims there is “no justification” for not opening the satellite office, and that “the cost and burden on the county to designate a satellite office will be negligible in comparison to the irreparable harm that plaintiffs have already suffered, and will continue to suffer, as a result of the violation of their statutory and constitutional rights.”
Attorney Rappold, of Mission, S.D., said, “If we’re successful, and there are similar issues in other areas, this case would be something to tell the local folks: ‘You need to make sure you are doing things properly.'” 

Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

Nikki Burch
Nikki Burch


By Brentin Mock and Jacqueline Patterson, Grist


As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

Consider that only 51 percent of American voters “strongly” prefer clean energy investments, according to a recent Sierra Club survey, but preference is significantly higher among African-American voters (77 percent) and Latino voters (71 percent). A Yale study found that African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to require electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent — a modest sum — of energy load from wind or solar, even if that would increase electric bills.

And yet it’s white men who exercise most of the power over the current coal-based economy – via their places on corporate boards, their positions in politics, and, on the local and state level, where they make up the bulk of public utility and service commissioners. The utility commissioners (who are usually elected or appointed) regulate the corporate-owned utility industries, determine electricity costs and, in some cases, decide where power plants can be built.

These utility commissioners will play a critical role in hammering out the details of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced regulations for coal-fired power plants. Yet, many of them do not look like the residents that the utilities serve. According to a study from the Minority and Media Telecom Council, 33 state public utility commissions (64.7 percent) do not have a single minority member — that includes Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, the states with the highest concentration of black residents.

We also see this whiteout at the federal level, where the number of people of color serving in the U.S. House and Senate energy committees are but a handful.

You can chalk this lack of diversity up to the kind of patronage and cronyism that has preserved these powerful roles for white men —  a function of white supremacy. You can also credit voter suppression and intimidation, which happen even in local utility district elections. In fact, such shenanigans are harder to detect in these smaller races that don’t draw the same kind of media spotlight as a gubernatorial or presidential race. In the 1980s and 1990s, when African Americans built multiracial coalitions to diversify local utility boards and electricity co-ops throughout the South, white officials secretly changed election rules to disqualify their votes (read more on this here).

Other examples:

● In 2000, the Department of Justice filed a voting rights complaint against the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District in Los Angeles County, Calif., for redrawing district lines so that the Latino voting populations would be diluted across the district.

● In 2008, Texas proposed to change its qualification requirements for candidates running for water supply district supervisor so that only landowners would be eligible, which ruled out a number of Latino Americans seeking candidacy and some who were already supervisors.

● Also in 2008, the North Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder case, which the U.S. Supreme Court almost used to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, involved elections for positions that control utility, land, and water resources.

These cases show how racial disenfranchisement drains power, energy, and resources from people of color, which is why Voting Rights Act protections are so essential.

People are taking action despite these problems. Latino Americans are campaigning to defeat a proposal from the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which wants to build more coal and nuclear energy stations. In Arizona, Latinos are campaigning to encourage the Salt River Project public utility board to increase solar and wind energy generation. In South Carolina, Rev. Leo Woodberry is leading an environmental justice effort to work on the state’s implementation plans for the new power plant regulations, with an emphasis on making sure electricity rates remain affordable and accessible for low-income customers.

Understand, it’s not only that we need more black and brown utility commissioners. But voters need to ensure that commissioners of any race represent their clean energy values. Last year in Georgia, a multi-racial band of clean energy advocates teamed with the not-so-colorful Tea Party to force Georgia Power Company to increase solar-based energy production. The coalition did this by appealing to the Georgia Public Service Commission. There has been only one African American and one woman who’ve served on Georgia’s Public Service Commission in its 133 years, both of them elected in the 21st century.

These are laudable campaigns, but ultimately it will require African-American, Native-American, and Latino American voters being able to vote fairly and freely — and also to be able to serve on these boards — to ensure that those paying the highest costs for our fossil fuel addiction have a voice in securing a clean energy future. For all Americans who want the same for their future, the way to act is to support strengthening voting rights protections across the nation.

Brentin Mock is Grist’s justice editor. Follow him on Twitter at @brentinmock.

Montana Indian voting lawsuit settled

By John S. Adams, Great Falls Tribune


HELENA – Indian plaintiffs who sued in federal court to force the Montana secretary of state and three rural counties to open satellite voting offices on remote reservations have settled the lawsuit out of court.

Under the agreement, the three counties agree to open satellite voting locations on three reservations and pay plaintiffs’ attorney fees in the amount of $75,000. In a separate agreement, the state agrees to pay an additional $25,000 in attorney fees, according to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.

“I pledged to help assist the tribes and the counties to make this all work,” McCulloch said.

Both sides hailed the agreement as a win.

Northern Cheyenne tribal member Mark Wandering Medicine, along with 11 other Indian plaintiffs, in February 2013 sued McCulloch and county elections officials in Blaine, Rosebud and Big Horn counties, alleging the defendants violated portions of the federal Voting Rights Act, which “prohibit voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in one of the language minority groups.”

The plaintiffs argued their rights to equal access to voting were violated when McCulloch and county elections officials refused to set up satellite voting offices on remote Indian reservations in advance of the November 2012 presidential election.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the ACLU of Montana and the national ACLU Voting Rights Project filed court documents supporting the plaintiffs’ claims that tribal members living on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap Reservations are at a voting disadvantage compared to white voters in Rosebud, Blaine and Big Horn counties.

The plaintiffs argued that the only late-registration and early voting options available to them between the close of regular voting registration and Election Day is at county courthouses in the white population centers. In some cases those courthouses are more than 100 miles round-trip from where most tribal members live, making it difficult for many impoverished Indians to register late and vote after the regular registration deadline.

The case was set to go to trial June 30.

In a settlement agreement reached Tuesday, the counties agreed to open satellite county election offices beginning Oct. 7. Those offices will be open on the reservations two days a week for tribal members to register late and cast absentee ballots in person.

During those days the voting offices will not be open at their normal locations in the county seats.

Alex Rate, attorney for the Wandering Medicine plaintiffs, said the settlement agreement is a bit step toward the goal of achieving voting equality on the reservations.

“Given the history of discrimination against Montana’s first peoples, we believe that everyone should have equal access to the ballot box, and this agreement is a giant step towards reaching that goal,” Rate said. “Further, this agreement validates the central pillar of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act: that Indian voters must have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.”

Bret Healy, a South Dakota-based Indian voting rights consultant with Four Directions, called the settlement a big victory for Indian voting rights but said the underlying technical issues that are preventing the state and counties from opening full-fledged satellite voting offices still need to be addressed.

“The final solution that we think is the appropriate one is to wrestle the technology obstacle to the ground so a satellite office is open five days a week as well as the county voting office,” Healy said.

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ demands for satellite voting offices were not allowed under Montana law, which requires each absentee ballot to be issued in sequential order using paper ballots that are prenumbered. The ballot number an absentee voter receives is determined by a complex, statewide computerized system that is not programmed to issue ballots from more than one location, the defendants said. Due to Montana law, as well as technical impossibilities with the statewide computer system, satellite offices were not an option, they argued.

“Because what the plaintiffs sued for was not something they could obtain, Blaine, Big Horn and Rosebud counties offered the plaintiffs an alternative,” said Sara Frankenstein, the attorney representing the counties in the litigation. “The three counties have offered to move their election offices for two days a week from its normal location in the county courthouse to a tribal facility on Indian reservations during the 30-day early voting period. The three counties are looking forward to working with their respective tribes on that issue, and are happy to address plaintiffs’ concerns with an alternative method that is actually legal and possible, and at the same time will cost the county very little to provide.”

Healy said the Secretary of State’s Office needs to work to address the technology hurdles in order to give tribal members on the reservations full equal voting opportunities.

“The bottom line is Native American voters on these reservations are going to go from zero days of equality and late registration and absentee balloting opportunities to at least a strong step forward,” Healy said.

McCulloch said counties will not be able to have two voting offices open simultaneously under current state law.

“The law would have to be changed and the Montana Votes system would have to be changed,” McCulloch said.

Healy said with this “inelegant fix” in place, Four Directions will work with other tribes across the state to request similar arrangements in their counties while at the same time continue to advocate for full satellite voting offices on the reservations.

“It simply defies belief that in this day and age we can’t have main voting office and satellite offices open and running five days a week,” Healy said. “The only reason that hasn’t happened is because nobody has rolled up their sleeves and tried to fix this.”

Walsh to hold hearing on the challenges to voting

Montana Sen. John Walsh on June 25 will chair a Senate Rules Committee hearing examining the hurdles voters in rural areas face due to long distances to polls, lack of easy access to mail voting and the lack of infrastructure. The committee will also hear about ways states have tried to make voting easier for people.

Walsh’s office said he organized the hearing in response to the concerns he heard from people across Montana, particularly in Indian Country.

The hearing title is “Election Administration: Examining How Early and Absentee Voting Can Benefit Citizens and Administrators.”

Witnesses at the hearing include:

• Rhonda Whiting, board chair for Western Native Voice, a Montana nonprofit that seeks to increase Native American voting and voting access, headquartered in Billings.

• Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown.

• Larry Lomax, of Nevada, a former member of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

Montana School District Charged with Voting-Rights Violations

Courtesy Richard PetersonWolf Point school district voting-rights lawsuit participants, including, left to right, plaintiff Bill Whitehead, plaintiffs’ counsel Jon Ellingson of ACLU Montana, plaintiffs Lanette Clark and Ron Jackson and Jim Taylor, also of the Montana ACLU.
Courtesy Richard Peterson
Wolf Point school district voting-rights lawsuit participants, including, left to right, plaintiff Bill Whitehead, plaintiffs’ counsel Jon Ellingson of ACLU Montana, plaintiffs Lanette Clark and Ron Jackson and Jim Taylor, also of the Montana ACLU.

Stephanie Woodard, Indian Country Today Media Network

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Wolf Point School District, which has a predominantly Native student population, drawn from the surrounding Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in northeastern Montana. The suit argues that school board districts favor non-Native voters and should be redrawn.

Wolf Point is the largest community on the reservation and has a two-part school district. The predominantly non-Native portion, with 430 residents, elects three members to the eight-member school board of trustees. The 4,205 residents of the predominantly Native American portion—nearly 10 times as many people—elect five members. That means one board member from the mostly white area represents 143 residents, while board members from the mostly Native area each represent 841 people, according to the suit, Jackson et al v. Wolf Point School District.

This imbalance violates the one-person-one-vote principle, said Montana ACLU legal director and plaintiffs’ co-counsel Jon Ellingson. The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Great Falls, Montana, asks for enforcement of equal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, as well as by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The suit also invokes Section 3 of the VRA and asks the court to “bail in” the school district and subject it to Section 5 preclearance. If ordered to submit future redistricting plans and other election procedures to the court, the district would have to prove in each instance that its practices were not discriminatory, says the complaint.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the VRA’s Section 4 in June and sent an existing list of preclearing jurisdictions back to Congress for retooling, the high court left the rest of the law intact. That includes Section 3, which provides an alternate way to require specific jurisdictions to provide this type of accountability.

The unequal representation in Wolf Point has profound effects on students, who have few Native teachers, counselors and others to guide them and provide role models, according to Ellingson. “For 15 years, the school’s board of trustees and other authority figures have been almost exclusively white. The children see Native employees who are mostly support staff.” As a result, said Ellingson, the school does not promote Native children’s culture and aspirations.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office investigated the school, according to a Helana newspaper. This followed years of activism by Fort Peck tribal member Iris Allrunner and others and a report to the agency on a visit to the school by Indian-education advocate Christine Rose. The agency heard parent allegations ranging from overprescribing of Ritalin and use of a locked, padded isolation room for Indian students to sexual abuse and incidents of racially charged cruelty by white students and staff.

U.S. News & World Report 2013 education ratings show an underperforming school, with reading and math scores below the state average. Enrollment figures provided by the district data specialist for the school year 2012–13 show Native children making up a smaller proportion of the student body as they age: 72 percent of junior high students were Native, while just 48.8 percent of high school students were—a difference of just over 23 percent. Meanwhile, white children made up 10.7 percent of the junior high and 27.8 percent of the high school. The rest of the children were from other population groups or had been identified by their parents as being of two or more races.

A measure of the Wolf Point elite’s blind spot for Native concerns can be found in the history section of the town’s website. In the early 1900s, the area was little more than a railroad station and a collection of settlers who had “poured into” Montana for cheap Indian land, according to the site. The web page continues: “Only one more thing was needed. Wolf Point was on an Indian reservation—a huge reservation with very few Indians…In the early summer of 1914, the date everyone was waiting for arrived—the official opening of the Fort Peck Reservation to homesteading.”

At press time, officials of the school district and board of trustees had not returned calls requesting comments on the various issues the suit raises


Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/09/02/montana-school-district-charged-voting-rights-violations-151122

Leaders Praise Supreme Court Decision to Uphold Voting Rights

Tanya Lee, Indian Country Today Media Network

Tribal leaders in Arizona praised the Supreme Court’s June 17 decision to strike down Arizona’s Proposition 200, which effectively restricted the voting rights of American Indians in the state.

The Hopi Tribe, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and other groups in the voting rights case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, were represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which characterized the Arizona law as a “state voter suppression measure.” The law would have required potential voters present proof of citizenship in order to register to vote by mail.

Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa says the tribe took the case to the country’s highest court because “no tribal member should be required to come in and say, ‘I’m a citizen of the United States.’ We’ve always been here. Many tribal members were born in homes. Many have no birth certificate. It’s not right for anyone to deny us the right to vote.”

Yavapai-Apache Nation Tribal Councilwoman Lorna Hazelwood also welcomes the ruling. “As a sovereign Indian tribe in Arizona, we recognize that the Supreme Court’s ruling on voter’s rights is a victory for Arizona tribes. Our people have been challenged for decades in engaging in the voting process, just based on the historical segregation of demographics. The 2004 voter approved Prop 200, continued to further discourage election participation of our people. The Supreme Court’s decision eliminating this provision is commended and welcomed by our Tribal Leader’s and eliminates the discouragement and challenges of our tribal voters.”

On the other hand, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Gregory Mendoza says that the ruling, while allowing “voter registration drives and individual registrations to continue without eligible voter registrants being burdened with providing documentation of citizenships,” still leaves open the possibility of voter discrimination. “The Court provided that Arizona cannot require individuals registering to vote to provide evidence of citizenship when they register [to vote] using a federal form. Nevertheless, the state can require individuals to prove their citizenship with documents such as a driver’s license or passport when registering with a state form…. The ruling left in place a dual-registration system; a federal system and a state system. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Community members predominately use the state form.”

Gov. Mendoza’s concern that voter discrimination could continue in Arizona was underscored when on June 25, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. Shelby County, Alabama, argued that the special circumstances under which the federal government assumed the authority to approve changes to state voting procedures, among them lower voter turnout among minorities, specifically African Americans, no longer exist 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Justice Clarence Thomas, in an opinion concurring with the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote, “Regardless of how one looks at that record, no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the nation in 1965.”

The court, in its 5-4 decision, agreed and struck down the part of the law that determined what criteria would be used to put a state under federal oversight in regard to voting rights in elections for everything from choosing a U.S. president to choosing local school board members.

In their dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote that “second-generation barriers,” such as gerrymandering district boundaries to put a majority of whites in each voting district and at-large voting, which dilutes the voting power of minorities, still exist. They noted that “between 1982 and 2006, DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice] objections blocked over 700 voting changes based on a determination that the changes were discriminatory.”

Arizona was among the nine states that were covered by the Voting Rights Act and that had to seek preclearance before it could make any changes to its voting procedures, which included how districts were drawn, where polling places were located and when they were open. That is no longer the case. What the Supreme Court gave with one hand, it may have taken back with the other.


Related stories:

Supreme Court Backs Cheap Tricks That Keep You From Voting

Custer’s Revenge? Supreme Court Guts VRA on Little Big Horn Anniversary

Supreme Court Ruling Impacts Voting Rights in Indian Country

Supreme Court Upholds American Indian Voting Rights


Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/08/leaders-praise-supreme-court-decision-uphold-voting-rights-150321

Supreme Court sides with tribes in Arizona voting rights case


The U.S. Supreme Court sided with tribal interests today in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, a voting rights case.

By a vote of 7-2, the court held that certain provisions of Proposition 200 are pre-empted by federal law. That means the state can’t ask people to prove their U.S. citizenship when they register to vote.

The Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona and the Hopi Tribe were among the plaintiffs that challenged the law. The tribes want to protect the voting rights of members who were born in the U.S. but might lack proper documentation.

The National Voter Registration Act already asks about citizenship, the Supreme Court noted. So the state’s requirement conflicts with federal law.

“We conclude that the fairest reading of the statute is that a state-imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship not required by the federal form is ‘inconsistent with’ the NVRA’s mandate that states ‘accept and use’ the federal form,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.

Supreme Court Decision:
Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (June 17, 2013)

Supreme Court Oral Argument Transcript:
Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona v. Arizona (March 18, 2013)

9th Circuit Decision:
Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona v. Arizona (April 17, 2012)

Related Stories:
Supreme Court takes up tribal challenge to Arizona voter law (3/19)
Supreme Court set to hear tribal challenge to Arizona voter law (3/12)
Editorial: Voting Rights Act necessary to prevent discrimination (3/12)
Supreme Court to review Arizona voter law that tribes oppose (10/16)