Justice Department blocks Charles Mix County redistricting plan

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) 2-08

The U.S. Justice Department has blocked Charles Mix County from putting in place a voter-passed redistricting plan that would have increased the commission from three to five members.

A letter from the Justice Department said the blocked plan likely would have allowed American Indians to elect one commissioner out of five instead of one out of three.

The county failed to show that the redistricting plan, approved by voters in 2006, did not have a discriminatory purpose as defined in the federal Voting Rights Act.

The county has not demonstrated that the change would not have hurt voting rights based on race, according to the letter written by Acting Assistant Attorney General Race Chung Becker.

Sara Frankenstein, a Rapid City lawyer representing the county commission, said she doubts the county will challenge the Justice Department’s ruling. County commissioners never took a position on the redistricting plan put on the ballot by petition signers, but commissioners agreed under the settlement of a voting rights lawsuit to submit the redistricting plan for review by the Justice Department, she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the county on behalf of four Indian voters in 2005, alleging the county had discriminated against Indian voters. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol ruled the county’s districts were unconstitutional, and the judge in 2006 approved a new redistricting plan that established a commissioner district with a majority of Indians.

The 2006 redistricting plan, agreed to by the county, resulted in the election of an Indian as one of the three commissioners.

Under a settlement reached late last year, the Charles Mix County Commission agreed to submit any changes in election ordinances for approval by the Justice Department. The county submitted the voter-initiated change to five districts for the Justice Department’s review in December.

Bryan Sells, a lawyer with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said the Justice Department’s decision means the county cannot enforce the redistricting plan. That means the county will use the three-district plan approved in the lawsuit.

“We strongly approve the Justice Department’s decision to object to the transparent attempt to dilute the voting power of Native Americans,” Sells said in a written statement.

The Justice Department letter said the county failed to show the proposed change to five districts did not have a discriminatory purpose.

“In the first place, the voting changes appear to have a greater impact on Native Americans because, under the proposed plan, Native American voters can elect their candidate of choice in only one of five districts, as opposed to one in three districts under the current plan,” the letter says.

Frankenstein said county commissioners had no legal authority under South Dakota law to ignore the voter-passed redistricting plan, but commissioners agreed to have it reviewed by the Justice Department.

The Justice Department said the county could ask the department to reconsider the issue or ask a judge to overturn the department’s decision. Frankenstein said the county is unlikely to take either action.

“I haven’t talked with the commissioners about it, but I would very confidently think we would not oppose the decision because we took no position on it in the first place,” Frankenstein said.