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Testimony reveals Native Americans still face obstacles at the polls

Testimony reveals Native Americans still face obstacles at the polls


Some people believe that intimidation of minority voters is a concern of the past, but testimony at a public hearing Thursday revealed concerns that Native Americans still face obstacles when it comes to getting to the polls.

Rapid City resident Mark Lone Hill spoke during the National Commission on Voting Rights hearing at the Journey Museum about his experience voting in the 2012 general election.

"I filled out my ballot and made sure everything was checked out. So I go up to put it in the box, then this lady comes up and says: 'Hold on, I want to make sure you're putting that in right,'" Lone Hill said.

"I know I had it in right, but she pulls it out, takes out my ballot and looks at it, then she turned it over and looked at it up and down to see who I'm voting for," he continued. "Then she says, 'Oh OK, I just wanted to put it in for you.'"

Lone Hill said he was the only Native American at the polling station, the Bethel Assembly of God in north Rapid, at the time. This woman did not approach any other voter to check their ballots, he said. At least not until later that evening when his father went to vote at the same place. 

Thursday's public hearing was organized by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It is part of a series of nationwide hearings held to collect testimony on the current landscape of voting and elections in the U.S. This hearing encompassed South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

Lone Hill was one of more than a dozen witnesses who testified at the hearing, which developed a clear theme: Suppression and intimidation of Native American voters remains a serious problem in South Dakota and neighboring states.

Other witnesses told stories of how people who filed lawsuits were threatened to pay double the plaintiffs' court costs, how tribal elections and local elections were scheduled at the exact same time in different locations and how South Dakota often blatantly ignored federal districting laws.

In 2013, the Supreme Court effectively nullified Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required states to pre-clear any redistricting or voting changes to the federal government in its ruling in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, said Jean Schrodel, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California who was an expert witness at the hearing. 

Part of the court's reasoning was that suppression and intimidation of minority voters is no longer a significant problem in America, she said. But research of South Dakota's electoral history revealed several disturbing and contradictory facts about Native American representation and voting patterns.

"There has been more voting rights litigation involving Native Americans in the state of South Dakota than any other state by a considerable length," she said.

Patrick Duffy, a Rapid City lawyer who has represented Native Americans in several voting litigation cases, said South Dakota tends to fight almost every case involving voters rights.

"There's just never any quarter given," Duffy said. "Unless it was just so bad that you couldn't keep a straight face looking at it, you were going to get a fight."

Many of the voter abuses that occur today aren't outwardly blatant but are insidious and predatory, Duffy said.

He told a story about a man who would hang around the polls, wait until a naive Native American was finished voting, then told the voter that Democrats were offering $20 to all voters for "traveling expenses." The man then pointed them to the Republican offices in Pine Ridge if they asked where they could collect.

The staffers in Pine Ridge had no idea what was going on, so they reported what happened. Suddenly, accusations that Native American votes were being bought was a story in the media, Duffy said.

Evidence of Native American voter suppression can be seen by looking at past elections, Schrodel said.

According to research from the state archives, only 12 Native Americans have ever been elected to the state Legislature in the history of South Dakota, Schrodel said. Out of the 105 seats in the state Legislature, only three are currently held by Native Americans, she said. 

The way to measure if a race is accurately represented politically is to take the percentage of representatives from a minority group and divide it by the percentage of the overall population of the minority group in the area.

Ideally that number should be one or close to it. South Dakota's number today is 0.32 and has never been higher than 0.57, Schrodel said.

Contact Scott Feldman at 394-8337 or

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