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Federal judge orders Lyman County to remediate Lower Brule voting rights violations

Tribal Manager Tim Azure testifies at a federal court hearing on July 26, 2022, from behind a Plexiglas screen serving as a Covid-19 precaution.
Tribal Manager Tim Azure testifies at a federal court hearing on July 26, 2022, from behind a Plexiglas screen serving as a Covid-19 precaution.

A federal judge has ordered Lyman County to come up with a plan for the November elections that gives the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe a chance to elect its preferred county commissioner candidates.

The tribe has been negotiating with the county to establish Native majority districts. The commission came up with a compromise but says it can’t comply until the 2024 election because of time constraints.

Federal District Judge Roberto Lange says that would leave a plan in place for 2022 that violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

For 30 years Lyman County has been one voting district with five at-large commissioners. That setup clearly violated the federal Voting Rights Act because, in effect, it prevented tribal citizens, about 40 percent of the voting population, from being able to elect their preferred candidates.

In October last year the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe proposed that Lyman County should contain five districts, two of them Native majority. Instead, the county established two at-large districts, one of them Native-majority with two commissioners.

County officials said they couldn’t implement the new plan until 2024, and so Lower Brule filed suit.

At a federal court hearing in late July, county officials testified that they needed to reconfigure software and verify addresses of Native voters who use P.O. boxes or partial street addresses.

But Tribal Manager Tim Azure testified that the Lower Brule reservation contains primarily HUD housing, which has established addresses.

In an exchange with Michael Cotter, one of the lawyers representing Lower Brule, Azure said the tribe has the ability to match 911 addresses to physical locations, but the county had not reached out to the tribe for help.

COTTER: “The county has indicated that it may have a few hundred addresses to verify. How long would you expect it to take the tribe to verify that many addresses?”

AZURE: “I think it would probably take us eight to sixteen hours.”

On Aug. 11, Judge Lange granted the tribe’s request for a preliminary injunction and gave Lyman County commissioners seven days to come up with a remedial plan or have the court create one for them.

Lange noted in his order that the county contends it would be breaking state law at this point by implementing a plan after deadlines have passed. But the judge said Congress preempts state law when it violates the Voting Rights Act.

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