School & District Management

S.D. District Sued Over At-Large Election System

By Sean Cavanagh — May 01, 2002 3 min read
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Several members of an American Indian tribe in rural South Dakota are suing the local school district in federal court, claiming its method for electing board members discriminates against Native Americans by weakening their voting power.

Three plaintiffs, who are Native Americans, contend in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sioux Falls that the 750-student Wagner school district has violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by using an at-large voting system.

They say the current electoral model, in which candidates can run for one of seven school board seats regardless of where they live in the district, results in members of the Yankton Sioux tribe routinely being defeated by a “white majority voting bloc.”

Tucked along the Nebraska border about an hour southwest of Sioux Falls, the school district is located in Charles Mix County.

None of the current board members is a Native American, although some have served on the board in the past, district officials said.

American Indians account for 42 percent of the 3,928 people who live in the district, the lawsuit says. The Yankton Indian Reservation takes up much of the southern part of the county, and 36 percent of the district’s voting-age population is Native American, the suit says.

“There are a lot of issues involving Indian kids that would be better addressed with a Native American on the board,” said Julie R. Weddell, one of the plantiffs and member of the Yankton Sioux tribe. “We would like to see conditions improve for the Indian kids.”

Ms. Weddell, who has run unsuccessfully for the school board in the past, said a Native American board member could help foster better understanding of tribal culture and language in the classroom, an awareness she believes is lacking now.

But Ken W. Cotton, a lawyer for the district, said Native Americans’ struggles in school board elections stem from a lack of political support in individual campaigns, not discrimination.

“I certainly do not think the school district has been engaged in any activity to dilute the Native American folks,” Mr. Cotton said. The school district, he said, “would love to see more Native American participation.”

While the lawsuit seeks to do away with at- large voting before the next election in June, it does not spell out a specific system to replace it.

Instead, those bringing the suit are asking a federal judge to allow the school system several options, said Bryan L. Sells, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting-rights project in Atlanta, which is representing the plantiffs.

Alternative Systems

One option for the district could be to elect board members from single-member districts—separate, geographical voting areas, Mr. Sells said.

Another could rely on some form of “cumulative” voting, in which residents could cast several votes for the same candidate in the same election, depending on the number of school board seats contested in the race.

That system potentially would allow a group of residents to pack their votes behind a single political candidate, boosting his or her chances of victory.

The federal Voting Rights Act has been used to overhaul numerous election systems in the South in an attempt to increase representation for African-Americans in everything from the courts to city and county councils to school boards. The law has not been called upon as often in cases affecting Native Americans, though the ACLU has used the act in least six court cases centered in tribal issues, Mr. Sells said.

In South Dakota, a case similar to the current Wagner dispute arose during the 1980s, when a group of Native Americans sued the 1,160- student Sisseton school district. That case, heard in federal court, resulted in the district’s switch to a form of cumulative voting.

Wagner school officials will resist electing board members by district, a process they view as “incredibly cumbersome and inefficient,” Mr. Cotton said.

They also want to keep board members’ terms staggered to begin in different years to ensure continuity among the elected officials.

But district officials are open to considering other changes, Mr. Cotton said.

“The school board is concerned that all members are getting a fair shake,” he said. “This shouldn’t become an Indian versus non-Indian issue. We’re all in the same school district.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as S.D. District Sued Over At-Large Election System

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