ACLU Challenges Illegal Disfranchisement of American Indian Voters in South Dakota

For Immediate Release


Maria Archuleta, ACLU national, (212) 519-7808 or 549-2666;
Robert Doody, ACLU of South Dakota, (605) 332-2508

ACLU Challenges Illegal Disfranchisement of American Indian Voters in South Dakota

SIOUX FALLS, SD - The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amended class action
lawsuit in federal court today to restore the voting rights of American
Indians who were illegally disfranchised in the 2008 presidential
election. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the
Western District of South Dakota on behalf of Kim Colhoff, Eileen Janis
and others, who attempted to vote in the election but were improperly
removed from the voter rolls due to felony convictions. Because state
law only disfranchises individuals sentenced to prison and both women
were just sentenced to probation, election officials unlawfully took
away their voting rights.

"Felony disfranchisement laws in
South Dakota have a disproportionate impact on American Indians, who
represent the majority of those convicted of felonies at the federal
level," said Robert Doody, Executive Director of the ACLU, South Dakota
Chapter. "Worse still, it's clear that confusion regarding the South
Dakota felony disfranchisement laws has resulted in legitimate voters,
even those who haven't been incarcerated for felony convictions, being
purged from the rolls or denied the ability to register to vote or cast
their ballots."

The lawsuit charges that South
Dakota officials' illegal disfranchisement of individuals with felony
convictions has had a disproportionate and negative impact on American
Indian voters who are overly represented in South Dakota's criminal
justice system. The lawsuit also contends that the removal of
individuals' names from the state and county voter registration lists
based on felony convictions for which they were sentenced only to
probation violates their rights to equal protection and due process
under the federal and state constitutions, the Help America Vote Act,
the National Voter Registration Act and Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting
Rights Act. The lawsuit names Secretary of State Chris Nelson, Shannon
County Auditor Sue Ganje and members of the state board of elections as

The ACLU originally filed the
lawsuit in February 2009 on behalf of Colhoff and Janis. The amended
lawsuit filed today represents a class of individuals in South Dakota
with felony convictions who were denied the right to vote despite the
fact that they were never incarcerated.

Colhoff and Janis, both residents of
Pine Ridge, South Dakota, registered to vote for the first time in 1974
and 1984, respectively, and remained on the voter rolls until early
2008, after they were each convicted of a felony offense and sentenced
to five years probation but no jail time. Despite the fact that South
Dakota only disfranchises those sentenced to prison, Colhoff and Janis
were removed from the voter rolls without any notice and denied the
right to vote at their polling places when they attempted to vote in
the 2008 presidential election. In front of several other voters,
election officials refused to allow Janis to cast either a regular or
provisional ballot.

"I will never get the chance to go
back and make my voice heard," said Janis. "It deeply disturbs me that
my right to vote was taken away because of administrative incompetence.
No one should be denied a ballot just because election workers don't
understand the rules. It's really hard not feeling like a second-class
citizen when one of my most fundamental rights has been stolen from

"What happened to our clients
represents the tragedy that occurs when election officials do not know
how to administer the law," said Nancy Abudu, senior staff attorney
with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "Not only did election
administrators take away their constitutional rights, but they robbed
them of the opportunity to participate in this historic election."

Attorneys on this case are Abudu,
Bryan Sells and Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project;
Doody of the ACLU, South Dakota Chapter; and cooperating attorney
Patrick Duffy.

A copy of today's proposed second amended complaint in Janis v. Nelson is available at:

An ACLU report providing a
historical overview of systemic discrimination against American
Indians, limiting their ability to participate in local, state and
national elections, can be found at:

More information about the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at:


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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