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South Dakota Legislature approves redistricting map, as lawmakers override conservative opposition

The new map reflects an increasingly urban state, affording new districts to Sioux Falls and one fewer rural district. The map comes after days of intense negotiations and beat back a mutiny in the House from the political right.

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The House of Representatives in Pierre, South Dakota paved the way to approving a new legislative boundary map by beating back a motion to start the process again by a vote of 39-to-31 on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Legislature has reached a deal on new legislative boundaries that, supporters say, will leave legislators equally happy and unhappy.

But after three grueling days, it's a new map, nonetheless.

The House of Representatives overcame a last-minute challenge to scuttle a compromised map between the Senate and House and voted down a motion from congressional candidate Rep. Taffy Howard , R-Rapid City, to start the process anew.

"It doesn't cost us anything," said Howard, urging the body stay longer in Pierre to hash out a new compromise and accusing the Senate of "bullying" the House in the process. "I know everybody's tired, and everybody wants to go home. But we know it's not for the best for the people of this state."

A map called Sparrow, an offshoot of a Senate-backed map called Blackbird, had gained large support from moderate Republicans and the lower chamber's few Democrats but was criticized by many conservative House members, some of who may be locked in primaries against each other. The Sparrow map also maintains single-member House districts on western reservations, and bridges North Rapid with the rest of the city — a new approach for the long, gerrymandered indigenous neighborhoods.

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The deal struck came only a day after House Majority Leader Kent Peterson , R-Salem, while wrangling members to support the deal, fell ill during a meeting and was transported by ambulance from the Statehouse to a local hospital. Rep. Will Mortenson , R-Pierre, invoked Peterson — who participated only by phone on Wednesday — as the lead sled dog in getting the deal passed while asking the body to beat back Howard's motion.

"We decided to get people in a room and forge a compromise the South Dakota way," said Mortenson. "And the lead negotiator is our brother, Kent Peterson ... we owe it to him to see it to fruition."

After the House dispatched the motion from Howard by a vote of 39 to 29, the chamber promptly voted in favor of the new map by a slightly narrower margin, 37 to 31.

The decennial redistricting arrives in South Dakota after a census that shows the largely rural state growing in urban centers in Rapid City and Sioux Falls while losing population in smaller, farming and ranching towns. The Sparrow map, liked Blackbird, reshuffles the metropolitan districts, which remained in contention until the final minutes of a bicameral conference committee on Wednesday morning.

After replacing Peterson on the six-member committee, Rep. Chris Johnson , R-Rapid City, brought a motion to annex part of Rapid City neighborhoods, including majority Native American precincts out of his District 32 and into western Rapid City neighborhoods, comprising wealthier, more conservative voters.

With the proposed Sparrow map, "a political meteor hits Rapid City, dumps the apples out, and restacks them in a completely different way," Johnson warned.

But seated immediately to his right, Sen. Red Dawn Foster , D-Pine Ridge, echoed comments other Indigenous voting advocates have said, that restoring North Rapid to the heart of the city is an attempt to enfranchise a long neglected population.

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Red Dawn Foster

"Moving that district into 32 for the first time would give them the opportunity to have representation to vote and have representation that matters," said Foster, later calling such an opportunity "a first."

The committee narrowly defeated the measure on a 4-2 vote, with Johnson and House Speaker Spencer Gosch in opposition. Later, on a 5-1 vote, with only Johnson opposed, the conference committee sent the Sparrow map back to both houses.

In the Senate, where the Sparrow map has enjoyed more support, the vote to adopt the conference committee report on Wednesday afternoon was swift. After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack , R-Union Center, removed his glasses, clearly emotional after three arduous days of negotiations and said, "With that, I'd like to thank everyone in this body."

The report now moves to Gov. Kristi Noem's desk. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for her posture on the Sparrow map. Should the governor not approve the bill, it is likely the Legislature will not meet the Dec. 1 deadline and map-drawing duties would fall to the state Supreme Court.

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