South Dakota school system settles election lawsuit

By Bernard McGhee
Published March 25th 2003 in  Associated Press
SIOUX FALLS - An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that claimed elections for the Wagner School Board alienated American Indian voters has been settled.

The suit, filed slightly more than a year ago, said the practice of electing board members from the district as a whole instead of from areas within the district diluted the Indian vote.

Wagner is 100 miles southwest of Sioux Falls near the Missouri River.

According to the ACLU, which filed the federal suit on behalf of three Indian members of the community, the voting system prevented Indians from holding even a single seat on the seven-member board even though they are 42 percent of the district's population of 3,900.

Indians have been elected to the Wagner school board in the past.

Under the settlement, the district will switch to a cumulative voting system, according to Bryan Sells, a staff attorney for the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. It means patrons can cast as many votes as there are seats up for election, Sells said. And voters can use their votes however they wish.

For example, if there were three seats up for election, a person could mark the ballot for three different candidates or give all three of their votes to one candidate.

"We're extremely pleased," Sells said Tuesday in an interview. "We think that the school board did the right thing by settling this. We think it's a settlement that's good for the whole community, so we're very, very happy."

In addition to the new voting system, the settlement moves the polling place from the school to the local National Guard Armory, Sells said.

"My clients expressed some concern that the existing polling place was somewhat hostile," Sells said.

The new polling place will also be more accessible to Indians, Sells said. The lawsuit had claimed that having only one polling place, in Wagner, keeps some Indians from voting. Many Indians in the community live 12 miles away in Marty. Sells said they had pushed for having more than one polling

"But we compromised and changed the location to a more accessible spot," he said.

Kenneth Cotton, an attorney for the school district, said having more than one polling place would have been too expensive.

Cotton said the previous voting system was within the law but that school officials were sensitive to concerns raised by Indians. Neither side in the dispute got exactly what they wanted but that the settlement was a good compromise, he said.

"I, myself, think it'll be good for the community, and I think the board obviously felt comfortable with it," Cotton said.

Superintendent Vernal Andersen said Tuesday that he had not yet seen a final version of the settlement but was glad the case has been resolved.

The settlement calls for election notices to be posted in places other than the local newspaper, which many in the Indian community do not read, Sells said. Election notices also will be put in places such as post offices, grocery stores and the tribal newspaper, Sells said.

Already, mailings have been sent out to a number of places, including a tribal newspaper, giving information about the changes, Cotton said. Cotton said he hopes increased awareness of school board elections will "spur a little more interest in school matters."

Julie Weddell, a plaintiff in the suit, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

The settlement, which was filed and approved last week, will be in effect during a school board election in June, which Sells said the ACLU plans to monitor.

School officials had no objections to the monitoring, Cotton said.

"I think both sides will be watching to make sure it goes smoothly," Cotton said.