MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE: South Dakota settles voting-rights suit

May 26, 2010
Paul Walsh

Voting rights have been restored for two American Indians in South Dakota who sued after being wrongly turned away at their polling places in the 2008 general elections because they were convicted felons, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday.

The agreement on behalf of Pine Ridge Reservation residents Kim Colhoff and Eileen Janis was reached Monday with the state and Shannon County.

While state law bans voting by anyone sentenced to prison, the disenfranchisement was improperly applied to Colhoff and Janis, who were only sentenced to probation.

Colhoff and Janis, represented in the federal suit by the ACLU, registered to vote for the first time in 1974 and 1984, respectively, and remained on the rolls until early 2008, after their felony theft convictions and five-year probation sentences. Neither was notified that they had lost their right to vote.

The suit alleged that South Dakota's illegal disfranchisement of convicted felons has had a disproportionate and negative impact on American Indian voters because they are overly represented in the state's criminal justice system.

In addition to restoring voting rights in cases such as these, the settlement also calls for government establishment of procedures to prevent unlawful disfranchisement from recurring, including increased training for election officials and public education.

The defendants in the suit have also agreed to cover the plaintiffs' $25,000 in attorney expenses.