Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

South Dakota ruled noncompliant with federal voter law


Three South Dakota agencies have violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. That’s the opinion released last week in response to a lawsuit filed by the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux Tribes.

Federal District Judge Lawrence Piersol has found that the Secretary of State, the Department of Social Services, and the Department of Public Safety all failed to uphold a federal law designed to make it simpler for people to register to vote.

The National Voter Registration Act requires certain state agencies to help clients register to vote. Those include driver’s license stations and services for public assistance and disability.

When the Native American Rights Fund filed this lawsuit in September 2020, then-NARF attorney Natalie Landreth said the complaint dealt with a complex federal act.

“The law is fairly technical in its requirements, but it’s really simple,” she said. “It’s supposed to be easy to register, and it’s supposed to be offered to you when you interact with the state at a number of different points, and it’s just not happening.”

Judge Lawrence Piersol has now found that South Dakota’s Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department of Public Safety (DPS) both violated federal law by asking applicants if they wanted assistance with voter registration. Federal law requires them to offer those services routinely unless the client wants to opt out.

If someone does not have a Social Security number, a state ID card, or a driver’s license, the state must assign an identification number. Federal law requires the state agency to handle that in its offices. But DPS was sending those clients to the county auditor. That was also the practice in certain rural areas and in Indian Country, where DPS contracts with local governments.

According to the judge’s order, DPS and DSS both failed to deliver voter registration applications to county auditors in a timely manner, and some applications were not sent in because of errors on the forms.

The blame for these problems fell on department supervisors and also on the Secretary of State, in this case Steve Barnett.

Judge Piersol noted that the Secretary of State, under South Dakota law, chairs the State Board of Elections and is responsible for enforcing the federal act. He said Barnett had failed to provide proper training and oversight and had given out inaccurate information.

Judge Piersol did not grant summary judgment to the plaintiffs on certain factual matters where witnesses need to be called and evidence presented. Those issues can continue to be litigated.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.