PIERRE, S.D. — In a surprise move, the Senate committee leading a redistricting effort in South Dakota voted Monday, Oct. 25, to allow for a wider deviation limit on population for two Native American-heavy districts in the southwest and central regions, essentially signaling an undercount in the 2020 U.S. Census on tribal lands.

The move, prefaced by remarks from Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, will allow Districts 26 and 27, spanning the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations respectively, to remain largely unchanged from their current district boundaries, which have been two of the only Democrat-friendly districts in the state.

But the move, said Duhamel, is motivated by public testimony from many indigenous voting rights groups that alleged an undercount by the U.S. Census last year that, if not acknowledged, could lead to underrepresentation from the state's largest minority population.

"I know it's atypical," said Duhamel, "But under the circumstances....protecting these two particular districts, I thought, potentially there would be legitimate reasons this year for this particular change."

Pushed by Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, who has had a competing map plan, to explain, Duhamel reiterated her "concerns about the accuracy of the census."

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The move also drew criticism from a former legislative candidate, Joel Koskan, who has run unsuccessfully as a Republican in District 26. Koskan told the committee they're required by law to "follow the Census" and said widening the deviation would be a slap in the face to the "rest of the population" in the district who is non-Native.

However, concerns about the Census undercount abound. During a three-day tour of the state two weeks ago, a number of voting rights advocates for Native American groups, including Oglala Sioux Tribal President Kevin Killer, a former legislator, testified before the group to an alleged undercount during the pandemic-impacted census count last year.

Before the committee approved raising the population deviation to 12.79%, Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, who represents District 26 and has repeatedly sounded the alarm about issues with the census data, told the committee that he "appreciated" Duhamel's motion and "was unaware that this motion was going to be offered."

"I think it brings to light some of the concerns we've heard from tribal leaders and how important this would be for them," said Heinert.

Ultimately, the committee voted 6-1, with Bolin in opposition, to approving the wider deviation limit. Later in the meeting, the committee voted 5-2 -- with Bolin and Heinert in opposition -- to the latest version of a map called "Blackbird," that has the backing of Senate Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck.

Heinert called on the committee prior to next month's special session to further amend Blackbird with a feature of his map, called "Eagle," that incorporates a whole district encompassing North Rapid City, a larger Native American neighborhood in the city.

In the parallel House committee on redistricting, lawmakers approved an updated version of the so-called "Grouse" map, that has largely been cheered by rural, conservative voters across the state. That map, however, maintains a 5% deviation and has been viewed as a non-starter with more moderate senators.