On December 16, 2008, a federal appeals affirmed a decision protecting the rights of Native American voters in Martin, South Dakota. Siding with the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eight Circuit ordered local officials to correct violations of the Voting Rights Act that prevented Native Americans from having an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.
According to the ACLU Voting Rights Project, this was a tremendous victory for the people of Martin, South Dakota, who, according to attorneys working on the case, have endured a long, hard struggle for equality at the voting booth. Undoubtedly, this ruling will provide Indian voters with the right to have an equal say in choosing their government.
In terms of background, the ACLU brought the lawsuit mid-2002 on behalf of two Native American voters who said that the redistricting plan adopted by the city that year had the purpose and effect of diluting Native American voting strength. Because the Native American population made up approximately 45 percent of the city's population, it would have been unable to elect any candidates of their choice to the city council because the redistricting plan ensured that white voters controlled all three city council wards.
The district court initially ruled in the city's favor in March 2005. The Native American plaintiffs appealed, and on May 5, 2006, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eighth Circuit reversed the lower court's decision, sending the case back to the district court.
In December 2006, the district court not only ordered a "full and complete remedy" for the plaintiffs, but also affirmed many of the factual claims of voting discrimination that the voters had described in their original lawsuit, including the fact that the city's redistricting plan unlawfully dilutes Native American voting strength. The ruling from December 16th upholds that decision, as well as the adoption of voting system proposed by the plaintiffs.
This decision will undoubtedly provide Native Americans with an equal voice in the selection of city officials. The ruling is also an important reminder that the Voting Rights Act remains a valuable tool to guard against discrimination in the electoral process.
To view the decision, please click here.