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.
A Federal District Judge 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, as Victoria Wicks reports.
When the Native American Rights Fund filed this lawsuit in September 2020, then-NARF attorney Natalie Landreth said the complaint focused on a complex law with a simple purpose.
“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.”
Landreth said in 2004, when the state followed federal law, 7,000 voter registration applications originated from public agencies. But 12 years later, that number dropped to 1,100, when the state no longer complied.
“As a result, you’re seeing a significant decline in voter registration in South Dakota.”
In his recent opinion, Federal District Judge Lawrence Piersol found that South Dakota’s Departments of Social Services and Public Safety both violated federal law in several ways.
One example is that agencies asked applicants to opt in for voter registration assistance, but they are required to offer those services routinely unless the client wants to opt out.
Another example: If someone does not have a Social Security number, a state ID card, or a driver’s license, state agencies are required to assign a voter identification number. Instead, state employees were sending those clients to the county auditor, even in rural areas and in Indian Country where it might be a long trip to the county seat. Judge Piersol placed the blame for these and other problems mainly on the Secretary of State, in this case Steve Barnett.
The judge noted that Barnett 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 to state employees.
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.
The Biden administration has released a new tool for tribes to help them navigate investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Officials from the departments of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, and the White House announced the Tribal Playbook Tuesday during a press call.
The playbook is intended to help tribal governments access benefits from the infrastructure law, which includes more than $13 billion for Indian Country. Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, says the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought feedback from tribes.
Newland says tribal leaders expressed the need for more information for funding, capacity building, and technical assistance – and for speeding up the permitting process. Newland says along with the playbook, the BIA is expanding its work to help tribes.
“We’re creating an Infrastructure Law Interagency Coordinator Position here within Indian Affairs so that we can help Indian Country navigate these resources. We’ve issued a national policy memo directing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to prioritize permitting for any infrastructure projects so that these critical dollars can reach Indian Country as quickly as possible.”
Infrastructure law investments for the Interior Department includes funding for water rights settlements, dam safety, climate change, and orphaned wells. Funding for other agencies address transportation, sanitation, broadband, drinking water, and other areas.
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