Court decides districting of South Dakota city

By David Melmer
Published February 19th 2007 in Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Martin City Council representatives will be elected at large, by order of the U.S. District Court.

The city was accused of establishing districts that prevented its large population of American Indians from participating in the political process, and plaintiffs to the Cottier v. City of Martin lawsuit argued that the move diluted the voting strength of Martin's American Indians. The U.S. District Court partially agreed and, on appeal, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Martin, the defendant, was given an opportunity to submit a districting plan that would be acceptable with the federal Voting Rights Act and not violate Section 2 or Section 5 of the act, of which the city was found to be in violation.

Section 5 requires certain states to submit any changes in voting procedures be submitted for approval to the U.S. Attorney General for approval. Section 2 requires that consideration be given to a voter's language.

When Martin failed to propose a remedial plan, the court chose one of the plans submitted by the plaintiffs in the case, which was put into effect immediately.

This lawsuit has gone from the District Court, which found in the defendant's favor, to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found in favor of the plaintiffs and remanded the case back to the District Court for resolution.

The District Court subsequently agreed with the appellate court and ordered Martin to submit a new district plan.

Martin claimed that no remedy to the violation existed.

U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier has chosen one of the plans submitted by the plaintiffs, which calls for an at large election of city councilmen.

Martin will elect six city aldermen on an at large basis. That means the city will not have three districts, as is the case today. While American Indians live in many areas of the city, they do not have enough strength in any district to elect a candidate of choice for a city position.

The plan, one of a few designed by the plaintiffs but not their first choice, will give American Indians a chance to elect at least one member of the city council.

Under the plan, three councilmen or aldermen will be elected each year so the council members will have staggered two-year terms. The first election will take place in 2007, with three council members to be elected, according to the court.

Martin, located between the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, lies in Bennett County, which the Oglala Sioux Tribe considers to be part of Pine Ridge.

At least 45 percent of the city's population of nearly 1,100 is American Indian. Since 1984, only two American Indian or American Indian-preferred candidates have been elected to the city council; and each time, the person ran unopposed.

When city fathers created district lines that diluted the American Indian vote in 2002, they prompted the original lawsuit, which claimed a violation of the VRA.

Martin officials argued that the new district lines were not intended to create racial discrimination, but were drawn because of a population shift. The officials also claimed that the American Indian population did not vote as a racial block, but more from a political position. The majority of the American Indian population in Bennett County is Democrat.

The city was given three different redistricting plans; two would have changed district lines, which were rejected by the city. Their argument was that people would not know which district they lived in because of the zigzagged boundaries that the plan would have created.

The third plan was to form an at large district, which the appellate court and U.S. District Courts approved.

"According to commentators, cumulative voting is particularly successful in non-partisan municipal elections in small towns with stable, evenly dispersed minority populations, just like Martin," Schreier wrote in her opinion.

"The at large system also avoids the need to redistrict following every decennial census," she stated.

Bennett County and the city of Martin became the focal point of political unrest in the 2000 election cycle when an organization of American Indian voters entered American Indians on the ballots and registered more Natives to vote in larger numbers than in previous years. The entire state picked up on that strategy and the American Indian voter is now considered a viable force in the political process, American Indian political proponents claim.