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Native Americans say redistricting dilutes their votes

Entering Pine Ridge Sign
Marty G. Two Bulls Jr.
The Pine Ridge Village sign as you enter from the north.

Kevin Killer questions the reliability of the 2020 census data.

Killer is president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He says census numbers are much lower for the Pine Ridge Reservation than other recent federal government population estimates.

“When we had one of the youngest populations back then and now we have 30 percent of our population under the age of 18, where did that other group go?” Killer said.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated just under 29,000 people lived on the Pine Ridge reservation. The new census numbers say about 20,000 people live in the three counties that make up the reservation. Half of Jackson County is outside the reservation.

“It’s just baffling and befuddling," Killer said.

The tribal president is also a former member of the state Legislature. Killer represented District 27, which covers Pine Ridge.

Both current House and Senate redistricting proposals would expand District 27 to include the eastern Pennington County towns of Wall, New Underwood and Quinn.

“How is that even justifiable to sit there and say, ‘OK, this is going to be your new boundaries for the next 10 years?'” Killer said.

One proposed senate expansion of legislative districts 26 and 27.
One proposed senate expansion of legislative districts 26 and 27.

Mary Williams is against the new district boundary proposal. She’s president of the Economic Development Corporation of Wall. She worries the redistricting proposals will dilute the region’s vote. That’s because the current District 27 is predominately Democratic, while eastern Pennington County is primarily Republican.

“After visiting with those legislators, they too can see it would be best for District 27 to keep their boundaries the way they are now, as well as District 26, and not make an adjustment at this point with those districts.”

The current district for eastern Pennington County includes an area south of Rapid City that runs through the Southern Hills all the way to the southwestern corner of the state.

Current political boundaries for districts 26 and 27
Current political boundaries for districts 26 and 27

However, the redistricting is required. Every 10 years, the committee must draw new boundaries based on updated census reports.

“We’ve heard over and over again concerns about the accuracy about the census data,” said Republican State Senator Mary Duvall, chair of the redistricting committees. “But our constitution is very explicit that South Dakota—we’re one of 21 or 22 states that specifically requires us to use census data. So, that’s what we have to work with.”

Troy Heinert is a Democratic state senator who lives on the Rosebud Reservation. He’s unsure his mail-in census form was accepted because the tribe only recently implemented numbered street addresses.

“I have no confidence that I was even counted,” Heinert said.

The redistricting committee takes the total state population and divides it by 35, which is the number of districts allowed in the state constitution. The committee draws new districts that reflect equal populations within a 10 percent range. The committee voted to keep them within 5 percent above and below that number.

Heinert’s district, number 26, is also proposed to expand. Heinert wants the committee to leave two predominantly Native American districts the same, but there’s a catch. The population would be too small.

“If we just left District 26 and 27 alone we’ll be outside of the 10 percent," Heinert said. "Which that’s what I would prefer.”

Heinert said the redistricting commission should acknowledge the census under-count. He said any other alternative is likely to end up in court. He's drawn his own map.

“I tried to get it as close as I could without diluting the American Indian vote in South Dakota,” Heinert said. “At 5 and 5, I guarantee we will get challenged and the state of South Dakota will more than likely lose.”

Heinert’s referring to the population variation a district can have – 5 percent above or below a population target. He wants to ensure that the Native American population continues to be a majority voice in those districts and to avoid a legal challenge.

The state was sued 20 years ago over redistricting plans that some say did not fairly represent the Native American vote. The state lost.

Lawmakers have until Nov. 8 to draw maps. That’s when both chambers meet to decide on the new legislative boundaries.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.