WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday, Sept. 6, a federal judge approved a settlement agreement between the parties in a lawsuit alleging that South Dakota violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) due to its failure to provide voter registration opportunities at state agencies. The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit — two Native American tribes, a voting rights organization and individuals — argued that multiple state agencies under the supervision of the South Dakota secretary of state and election officials failed to comply with provisions of the NVRA that require states to provide certain voter registration options at state motor vehicle agencies and public assistance offices. In early June, a federal judge issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs holding that South Dakota had failed to comply with the NVRA in a variety of ways. Among multiple violations, the judge found that the state’s election officials did not offer voter registration options at certain mandated locations — including the Department of Social Services and the Department of Public Safety — and during NVRA-covered transactions. Additionally, the judge found that the state failed to adequately train agency employees on registration requirements. As a result of the June ruling, these agencies must take actions to ensure compliance with the NVRA, such as updating their voter registration forms, retraining their officials in voter registration-related activities and more.
However, the lawsuit did not end there. There were multiple outstanding claims left in the suit pertaining to other state agencies — including the Department of Labor and Regulation — which were initially set to move forward at a trial in June, but the plaintiffs and defendants instead reached an agreement to settle these claims. The terms of the settlement are outlined in the agreement approved today by a federal judge and set forth numerous measures that will be undertaken by the secretary of state along with state agencies to ensure compliance with Sections 5 and 7 of the NVRA. For instance, the agreement establishes that the secretary of state will “continue to designate a statewide NVRA coordinator” who will be “responsible for ensuring, monitoring, and overseeing” compliance with the NVRA by state agencies, the secretary of state and county election officials and also implements NVRA trainings for these entities. The agreement also stipulates that the secretary of state will update voter registration application forms to “inform an Applicant that they may provide a written description of their physical address if they do not have a USPS address.” Additionally, under the agreement, driver’s license applications and change of address and renewal forms will be revised to automatically update applicants’ voter registration information or register them to vote unless they opt out. Previously, driver’s license applicants had to affirmatively opt into having their voter registration updated since it was not done so automatically. Overall, as a result of this settlement agreement, it will be easier for South Dakotans to register to vote and update their voter registration information. An attorney for the plaintiffs noted that the settlement “[e]nsur[es] that all eligible South Dakotans, particularly Native Americans who have been systemically disenfranchised by the state, have the right to vote puts us a step closer to realizing a more just, inclusive, democracy.” This agreement therefore represents a victory for South Dakotans and facilitates their right to vote under federal law.