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OURS: Wrong to close Native polling site

OURS: Wrong to close Native polling site

  • Updated

A federal rule, or the local interpretation of it, has led to further voter disenfranchisement of South Dakota's largest minority group — Native Americans.

For the past few years, it's been a point of pride among some city officials that a polling place was established at the Oyate Community Center in the Lakota Homes neighborhood in north Rapid City.

The Native-dominated neighborhood is home to 198 houses and an estimated 800 residents, a housing official said Friday.

Arranging for a place to vote that was within walking distance of those homes was important to former Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker, who felt the city's main minority group should be given every chance to make their voices heard on Election Day. Pennington County Auditor Julie Pearson, who oversees local elections, confirmed it was Kooiker who helped establish the polling site at the Oyate Center in the Lakota Homes neighborhood, just west of North Haines Avenue.

But in Tuesday's municipal election and for the forseeable future, those residents will no longer have a polling site to call their own. Now, voters from Lakota Homes and nearby neighborhoods will vote at Atonement Lutheran Church on Auburn Drive, about two miles north of the Oyate Center.

Voters in that district received a note from Pearson's office last month informing them of the change, indicating the Lakota Homes site was being dropped due to non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

By phone on Thursday, Pearson said the change was actually prompted by Oyate Center officials, not from her office. She acknowledged that ADA access problems were not the real reason for the switch, and that ADA was used "as an excuse" and to be nice about the reason. (It seems odd that such deception was needed.)

Pearson later read an email from the director of the Oyate Center from January that indicated because the community center now hosts federal Head Start early education programs, it could not allow activities considered political — meaning voters could no longer arrive, get ballots and quietly mark their election choices in a small cubicle. The same reason was given to end polling at the National Guard camp, she said.

Pearson and this writer agree the act of voting itself is not political, but rather a citizen's constitutional right. In any case, the results are the same: Lakota Homes voters will have to drive two miles north to Atonement Church to vote.

Pearson noted that finding suitable polling sites is not an easy task, and said that anytime a polling place is changed, the voters who live closest to the site may be disenfranchised. Surely that's more likely when those residents may be of lower incomes and have fewer resources to travel.

South Dakota has previously faced claims of Native voter disenfranchisement, in particular in 2014 when the state agreed (after a legal challenge) to open early voting sites in rural reservation towns where the official voting sites were until then many miles away.

No one can be sure if anyone from Lakota Homes will not vote because the polls are now farther away. But even if one person doesn't make the trip, it's a shameful result. We urge the Oyate Center to double check the rules regarding Head Start and voting, because the loss of one person's right to vote is an attack on everyone's constitutional expectation of fair and free elections.

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