ACLU challenges disfranchisement

Claiming illegal disfranchisement, the American Civil Liberties Uunion filed a lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in South Dakota on behalf of a group of Native American voters who were denied the right to vote in the 2008 election.

According to a statement from the ACLU, Kim Colhoff, Eileen Janis and others were denied the right to vote after they were improperly removed from the voter rolls because of felony convictions. Both women were denied their right to vote illegally because South Dakota allows only for disfranchisement while a person is in prison, the civil liberties organization explained.

According to Robert Doody, executive director of the ACLU’s South Dakota chapter, the South Dakota law disproportionately impacts American Indians in that state.

Further, he said, the law creates situations like this case where voters are unlawfully denied the right to vote because of improper execution of election laws. “It’s clear,” Doody added, “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.”

According to the ACLU, the voters whom they represent voted for the first time more than 25 years ago and remained on the voter rolls until this incident in 2008. Both Colhoff and Janis were convicted of felonies and sentenced to probation but served no prison time.

The lawsuit also charges that the disfranchisement created a humiliating experience at the polling place for Colhoff and Janis, both residents of Pine Ridge, S.D.. Neither person had been informed that they had been removed from the voter rolls until they tried to vote. In front of other voters, election officials denied them the right to vote.

The ACLU lawsuit aims to get the courts to strike down the South Dakota law under the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment as well as provisions of the Help America Vote Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I will never get the chance to go back and make my voice heard,” said Janis. “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 me.”

ACLU staff attorneys stated that the law is confusing, targets a group of people unfairly and robbed voters of their legitimate right to participate in the historic 2008 election.

Photo: Tom Prete / CC BY 2.0



Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).