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Lower Brule sues Lyman County for voter redistricting

Lower Brule Sioux Tribe
Neil "Cody" Russell, Vice-Chairman of Lower Brule Sioux Tribe

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe has filed a lawsuit against Lyman County for delaying a redistricting plan that would ensure the election of Native candidates to the county commission.

The lawsuit alleges the delay prevents Lower Brule from electing two commissioners in the upcoming election. Instead, the tribe will have one Native preferred candidate in 2024 and another in 2026.

This report relies on the complaint filed in South Dakota federal court as well as testimony before the 2022 state legislature.

Lyman County has had an at-large election process since 1992. That means candidates running for the five commissioner seats can live anywhere within the county.

Lyman County contains part of the Lower Brule reservation and has a Native population of 38 percent. With at-large elections, no Native candidate has ever succeeded in winning a seat on the county commission.

That election scheme violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To avoid a lawsuit, Lyman County and Lower Brule agreed that the county must establish two commissioner positions chosen by Native voters.

In October 2021, Lower Brule proposed five single-candidate districts, two of them with a Native majority and three with a white majority. According to plaintiffs, that scheme was legal under existing South Dakota law.

But in February, the Lyman County Commission enacted an ordinance establishing just two voting districts, one white with three commissioners and one Native with two commissioners. The commission also voted to delay the changes until after the next election, leaving the at-large system in play.

As a result, only one Native commissioner could be elected in 2024, with the second one elected in 2026.

Lyman County then went to the state legislature and asked for a change in state law to allow the two-district plan.

When the Senate State Affairs committee took up the bill on March 2, Lower Brule Tribal Vice Chairman Cody Russell testified against that change.

“Because county commissioner races are staggered, Native voters will not have the chance to elect the two representatives that we should have until 2026,” he said.

Russell said Native voters would be denied full rights for four years. And he said that Lyman County’s plan defeats the intent of the Voting Rights Act.

“This plan divides the county into Native and white districts, segregating us and deepening existing tensions between our two communities,” Russell said.

Russell is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They are asking the federal court to stop the delay and allow the election this year of two Native commissioners.

Lyman County will prepare and file its response with the federal court.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.