January 18, 2017

ACLU seeks to expand voting lawsuit


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – The American Civil Liberties Union wants to expand a voting rights lawsuit against state officials into a class-action lawsuit on behalf of American Indians in South Dakota.

At issue is a state law that removes from voter registration lists any person convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison. Voting rights are reinstated when the sentence is completed.

The lawsuit was filed in February 2009 by Eileen Janis and Kim Colhoff, two Pine Ridge women who allege that they were illegally removed from the voter registration list for felony convictions in federal court that resulted in probation but no prison time.

A request to expand the lawsuit to cover other American Indians is pending in federal court.

The state attorney general’s office has yet to file its answer to the request for class action status.

“Throughout this litigation it has been and remains the state’s position that it has not improperly denied any convicted felon, irrespective of race, the right to vote,” Attorney General Marty Jackley said.

The defendants include Secretary of State Chris Nelson and members of the state Board of Elections.

The lawsuit says “hundreds” of residents have unlawfully been denied the right to vote.

“To add more plaintiffs is significant,” said Nancy Abudu, staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project in Atlanta. “It means that we will be able to gather further evidence regarding the widespread impact of this issue. And in terms of relief we are seeking, we’ll be able to ensure that anyone who was wrongfully taken off the rolls that their name is put back on, not just the two plaintiffs who are named in the case.”

Janis and Colhoff were sentenced early in 2008 to five years probation and ordered to pay restitution of $22,140 and $29,156, respectively, for convictions of theft from an Indian tribal organization. Colhoff, ex-payroll supervisor for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, pleaded guilty. Former vice president Janis pleaded not guilty and was convicted in a jury trial in federal court.

According to the lawsuit, neither knew their name had been removed from the voter registration list until they went to vote: Colhoff in the June 2008 primary and Janis in the November 2008 election.

In addition to unspecified monetary damages, the lawsuit asks that any voter improperly removed from the registration list be reinstated, that federal observers be stationed at polling places, that the state educate and train poll workers and election officials, and that people be allowed to cast a provisional ballot when their voting rights are questioned.