Government officials in South Dakota were sued today because two American Indians were wrongly denied the right to vote in the Nov. 4 general election because their felony criminal histories were improperly interpreted, the plaintiffs alleged.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of South Dakota on behalf of Pine Ridge Reservation residents Kim Colhoff and Eileen Janis, who attempted to vote last fall "but were improperly removed from the voter rolls due to felony convictions," the American Civil Liberties Union said in announcing the action.
The ACLU added that because state law "only disfranchises individuals sentenced to prison and both women were just sentenced to probation, election officials unlawfully took away their voting rights."
Nancy Abudu, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said these cases illustrate "the tragedy of what happens when election officials do not know how to administer the law."
The lawsuit names as defendants Secretary of State Chris Nelson, Shannon County Auditor Sue Ganje and state board of elections members. Nelson said he did not know the suit was coming and declined to comment until he has read the document.
The ACLU detailed the voting history of Colhoff and Janis:
They both were on the voter rolls until early 2008 after they were each convicted of a felony, then sentenced to five years of probation and no jail time. They were removed from the voter rolls without notice and then turned away at their polling places when they attempted to vote in November.
"I will never get the chance to go back and make my voice heard," Janis is quoted as saying in the ACLU's announcement. "It's hard not to feel like a second-class citizen when such a fundamental right is stolen in such a random way."
The ACLU did not disclose in its announcement the nature of the felonies. Court records show that Colhoff and Janis were both convicted of theft.
A copy of the suit is available at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/exoffenders/38751res20090218.html Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482