The fight for fairness: redistricting takes shape in South Dakota
South Dakota legislators are now in a countdown to the special session on redistricting, and time is running out to address concerns - both from lawmakers and those they represent
PIERRE, S.D. — Each decade after the census, states begin the tedious process of redrawing electoral districts.
Redistricting takes into account where populations have increased or decreased, with the goal of keeping all districts at roughly the same number of people – protecting the constitutional right that each vote is worth the same.
State Senator Helene Duhamel (R- Dist. 32) , a member of the Senate Redistricting Committee, says, “It’s a challenge because the urban areas have seen the growth and the rural areas have seen decline in population – and each district has to have about 25,000 people plus or minus five percent.”
The Redistricting Committee sets the number of state senators and representatives. South Dakota’s constitution allows for 25-35 senators and 50-75 representatives. As of 2020, South Dakota is divided into 35 districts that elect one senator and two representatives each. Two senate districts are split into sub-districts, each with their own representative.
Places like Rapid City and Ellsworth are seeing tremendous growth – but it isn’t as simple as just dividing people up.
“Rapid City is growing – but we’re in a corner of the state – so we limit all the districts around us if we make Rapid City too big because they still have to get the 25,000 people,” Duhamel says. “Once we have the two big cities – Rapid City and Sioux Falls – the other parts of the state fall in like puzzle pieces.”
That “perfect” number for each district seems arbitrary – but it’s that way for a reason. Legislators take the new population (based on the Census) and divide it by the number of senators – so with South Dakota’s population at 886,667 in 2020, that comes out to 25,333 per district. The margin of difference in population allowed between districts is 5%.
Duhamel says a major change will be an additional district for Sioux Falls, while a rural district will disappear.
Lincoln County – which includes part of Sioux Falls – saw the fastest growth in the past decade – growing 45% to 65,161 people.
South Dakota is obliged by the Voting Rights Act to balance minority interests and ensure protected populations can elect representatives of their choosing.
“We have state law that says we are going to try to respect political and geographic boundaries, so we tried to piece together whole counties that would match that. Our state law says that we need to protect communities of interest,” says State Senator Mary Duvall (R-Dist. 24), chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee.
One of the biggest issues concerning native representation is the concentration of native populations outside of tribal lands.
“With having representation for some of our tribal communities limited to district 26 and 27 and 28a, those Voting Rights Act-mandated majority minority districts, I saw how much the urban community native population were not only just underrepresented – they had no representation,” says Kellen Returns from Scout with Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association. “Not in the legislature, not in the school board, not in the city council, the county commissions, you name it – all the places that elected people the native population was omitted from being represented.”
Returns From Scout says state lawmakers didn’t make an effort to include the native community during their tour – with no field hearings held on reservations – save for Mission. This excluded those from Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and other tribal groups from having equal access.
Hear more from Kellen Returns From Scout on urban native populations in South Dakota:
Seeing how underrepresented native communities are is part of what got Returns from Scout involved in redistricting in the first place. He has spent the last year working full-time for Great Plains and 20+ hours a week on top of that on redistricting.
“There are just some very very blatant obstacles that I think were intentional to prohibit people who look like me from participating in the process, and I wanted to see what I can do to fix that and to maybe shed some light on that,” Returns From Scout says.
Even though Census results weren’t released until August, legislators only have until December 1 to finalize a map. They will meet in a special session in Pierre next Monday, November 8 to discuss the proposed revisions.
Governor Noem will have the opportunity to veto the legislators decision before it’s implemented. If it passes the governor’s desk, the new district map will go into effect in time for the 2022 state elections.