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'Comprehensive' agreement looks to improve Native American voting access, revamp SD registration practices

In 2020, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe initiated a lawsuit against several agencies in South Dakota for violations of the National Voter Registration Act, stemming from a lack of training and oversight. A settlement agreement handed down on Sept. 6 promises to change that reality.

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Voters fill out their ballots while voting in the June 8, 2021 election at the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — State agencies in South Dakota that issue driver’s licenses and oversee public assistance programs will see changes to the way they handle voter registration going forward.

A federal judge approved a settlement agreement on Sept. 6 that will bring these agencies into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, requiring a statewide coordinator, voter registration training and an update to registration forms and procedures.

The settlement, which will remain in place for three years, is the culmination of Rosebud Sioux Tribe et. al. v. Barnett. In 2020, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe sued a handful of state agencies under the supervision of Secretary of State Steve Barnett, claiming his office had failed to provide adequate training, guidance, and monitoring of voter registration services, especially in Native American communities.

“It’s pretty historic. It’s a really comprehensive, detailed settlement agreement. There's really no way that the state can continue to violate the law under this agreement,” Samantha Kelty, a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund who was part of the team representing the plaintiffs in the case, told Forum News Service on Sept. 7. “These are all best practices that states across the country had been using for years to ensure compliance, and South Dakota was not.”

For example, the settlement lays out the specific responsibilities of the secretary of state’s office in ensuring compliance and accuracy in the voter registration services provided by state agencies, requiring a written report of any “issues resulting in an individual not being registered to vote or experiencing a delay in registering to vote.”

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This part of the agreement addresses concerns by plaintiff and Rosebud Sioux tribal member Kimberly Dillon, who claims she was unable to vote in the 2020 presidential election because the voter registration form she submitted to a state employee was misplaced.

Another part of the settlement requires revamped registration services and training at “issue sites,” which are established where the Department of Public Safety does not have a driver’s license office and instead contracts with another government agency to provide driver’s license and identification services.

These sites are common on reservations and in rural areas, and, despite federal law requiring such agencies to provide registration services, the plaintiffs testified that many of these sites were ill-trained in providing these services or did not provide them at all.

The Secretary of State’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

The National Voter Registration Act, known as the Motor Voter Law, was passed in 1993. The law applies to state motor vehicle agencies, requiring the inclusion of a voter registration form as part of an application for a driver’s license, as well as any state agency that administers federal or state public assistance programs, such as Medicaid or nutrition programs.

In May of this year, a federal district court sided with the plaintiffs on several of the allegations in the lawsuit.

A joint statement by the plaintiffs in the case stresses that the decision has implications that go beyond simply helping Native American voters.

“This settlement brings victory to Native people seeking to register to vote in South Dakota, and to all voters who support fair U.S. elections this year and in the future,” Lakota People's Law Project Co-Director Chase Iron Eyes wrote in the statement.

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MORE BY JASON HARWARD
On Nov. 8, South Dakotans rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana in the state among anyone 21 years and over. Now, the more than 100 businesses clamoring for a piece of this industry will have to attempt to sustain themselves on a few thousand medical patients.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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