Civil rights committee finds Native voting rights impeded, finalizes recommendations

By: - July 10, 2023 5:46 pm
A sign identifies a polling place during a city and school election on June 6, 2023, in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

A sign identifies a polling place during a city and school election on June 6, 2023, in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

Native Americans living on tribal land face many barriers to their voting rights, according to a new report finalized Monday by a civil rights committee.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an independent, bipartisan agency established in 1957. The commission’s mission is to investigate and report on issues related to civil rights, and to make non-binding recommendations.

In the wake of concerns raised by some Native American voters, the U.S. Commission’s South Dakota Advisory Committee decided to focus on the issue.

“There have been 25 voting rights cases in South Dakota with American Indian plaintiffs, the second largest number of cases in the country,” the committee’s policy brief says. “In nearly all, the American Indian plaintiffs either won or successfully settled.”  

The 11-member committee of diverse backgrounds and political affiliations will publish the final report online in the coming days. The committee provided South Dakota Searchlight with a policy brief Monday that summarizes the broader report.

The committee held five public hearings in 2022, inviting input from legal experts, academics, advocacy groups and people impacted by the issue. 

The final report, “Voting Rights and Access in South Dakota,” lists recommendations including funding voter transportation and mobile polling locations on reservations, designating Indian Health Service locations as places people can register to vote, educating voters that they do not need identification to register to vote, and encouraging ballot drop boxes on reservations.

The non-binding report of findings and recommendations will now be sent to federal, state and local officials.

Charles Abourezk is an advisory committee member, as well as chief judge of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court and chief justice of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Supreme Court. He said the implementation of the recommendations would improve Native American voter participation and trust in the state’s election process.

And in the end, the state would “avoid a lot of litigation, and I would say very expensive litigation,” Abourezk said during an April 10 meeting.

Committee Chair Travis Letellier is an economist. He said the diversity of viewpoints and experiences on the committee made the work challenging but also gave the report more authority.

“Every person on that committee is there for a reason,” Letellier said. “They had something to add, whether it’s their personal voice or their professional voice.”

Voting Rights and Access in South Dakota policy brief


The process

The committee approved the draft contents of the report on May 8. Huron Attorney Aaron Pilcher abstained from voting while all other members voted in favor.

Pilcher issued a press release soon after, condemning some of the recommendations – such as the recommendation discouraging law enforcement from hanging out in tribal polling locations – and highlighted himself as the member who “filed the lone dissent to the report.”

“We cannot perpetuate distrust between local law enforcement and the Native American community,” Pilcher wrote. “It is unwise to remove local law enforcement from polling places on a misguided belief that doing so will create a newfound confidence in government.”

The report says only 5% of Native Americans living in tribal areas told the committee they trust non-tribal governments; therefore, having police present is intimidating and makes them less likely to vote.

Dissent is part of the process, Mallory Trachtenberg with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights told South Dakota Searchlight after the Monday meeting.

“Our committee member makeup is intentionally diverse, so many members bring their own perspectives and opinions and may disagree on parts or all of the report, which is why we have the dissent process available,” Trachtenberg said, “but we actually do find that many of our committees reach consensus and do have a unanimous approval of the final report.”

Pilcher was absent from Monday’s meeting, where everyone else in attendance voted in favor of the final report.

Findings, recommendations

The committee heard it can be hard for American Indians who live in tribal areas to vote because they have to travel long distances to register, go to polling places, or drop off absentee ballots. Of 352 registered American Indian voters surveyed, 309 of them noted difficulty in traveling long distances. 

Voting by mail is also problematic on reservations due to a lack of residential mail delivery. This can cause delays in receiving mailed ballots, which is something 80% of American Indians living in tribal areas reported as a problem. Some American Indians living in tribal areas have non-standard addresses, which can make it difficult for election officials to identify their correct voting districts. Non-standard addresses can also make it challenging to ensure that reservation residents are able to vote on everything they’re eligible for.

Additionally, tribal members are having disproportionate trouble registering to vote online because some don’t have adequate technology or internet access.

Recommendations from the Committee

State recommendations

  • Amend Help America Vote Act reimbursement rules to allow county reimbursement for pre-paid postage for absentee voting and voter registration.
  • Enact legislation and allocate funding for a nonpartisan “Complete Count Committee” to ensure accurate census counts – ensuring funding is properly allocated to tribes. 
  • Designate Indian Health Service locations and Veterans Affairs Medical Centers as voter sites.
  • Repeal any South Dakota state law that obstructs the translation of ballots into languages other than English.
  • Ensure the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office creates and distributes a one-page infographic on “How to Vote” in South Dakota, including information on permitted IDs, affidavit voting without an ID, and other relevant details.
  • Clarify the definition of having completed “serving a sentence” in state law regarding voter eligibility.
  • Take measures to increase American Indian voting participation and support the “Remove the Stain” Act, which would rescind medals awarded to soldiers for the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, to build more trust.

County/Municipality recommendations

  • Include more American Indian voices in civics by reaching out to tribal governments for recommendations to improve engagement.
  • Ensure that county auditor offices have a reasonable number of American Indians as officials.
  • Urge tribal leaders to hold tribal elections on the same day as county, state and federal elections.
  • Encourage counties with reservation land to utilize Help America Vote Act funding to create satellite offices to offer in-person voting services on reservations, with consultation and approval by the respective tribes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated since its original publication with a different quote from Mallory Trachtenberg, who wished to clarify her comments.


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Joshua Haiar
Joshua Haiar

Joshua Haiar is a reporter based in Sioux Falls. Born and raised in Mitchell, he joined the Navy as a public affairs specialist after high school and then earned a degree from the University of South Dakota. Prior to joining South Dakota Searchlight, Joshua worked for five years as a multimedia specialist and journalist with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.