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Every vote counts

ANADARKO, Okla. - Turning 18 gives Americans many rights and privileges, but the right to register to vote is one that many people unfortunately do not exercise.

In Oklahoma, one organization hopes to increase Native participation in the local, state and national voting process. Called ''Rock the Native Vote,'' the organization is a non-partisan effort that began as a Native youth initiative in 2003 within the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In addition to getting people registered to vote, the organization has a second purpose: change attitudes about the voting process and ''help persons realize that our voting does make a difference, whether it's in our communities, our states or nationwide,'' said Rev. David Wilson, Choctaw, who serves as the OIMC conference superintendent and RNV chair.

In June 2004, RNV held its first large event, a live music rally in conjunction with the National Congress of American Indians, on the same weekend as the annual Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City. This year, RNV kicked off its voter registration campaign with a rally and dance held at the Oklahoma Native American Students in Higher Education conference in Weatherford, on the campus of Southwest Oklahoma State University.

Since then, RNV has set up booths at different events and locations, including pow wows and IHS clinics. Wilson said that during a two-day time span, RNV gained more than 100 registered voters at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic.

Two of the most common reasons why Native people don't vote are voter apathy and a belief that their vote doesn't count. Wilson said that the membership of RNV then does their best to inform them that the people who run for office are the ones who create and vote on policy decisions that directly affect Native people.

''When we hear Native persons talk about the challenges in our society, such as funding for health care for our people, funding for education - whether it's public schools or higher education - we tell people that we can complain about the lack of funding or the lack of support for those two pieces,'' he said. ''We also remind people that the people who make those decisions and create those policies are the people we elect to those offices. If we complain about this, if we're really concerned about that, we need to get out there and try to make a change for our communities.''

Wilson said that there is more excitement among young people with this election, crediting the success of the Obama and Clinton campaigns to contributing to this interest.

''I think this election year is different for the most part, I think, because of the excitement that's been created by primarily the race for the Democratic nomination for president. I think the presence of Barack Obama has created a lot of excitement and energy among young people. There's a lot of attention that's been focused on that. I think that's probably primary - the excitement that he and Hillary Clinton have brought to the Democratic nomination for president. We're hoping to build upon that attention that they've brought to this race.''

RNV will continue to register voters at Native events such as Red Earth until Oct. 1, which is the deadline for voter registration in Oklahoma. The organization is also planning a live music rally Nov. 1 at the Clarion Hotel and Convention Center in Oklahoma City as a way to remind those who have registered to vote to follow through and complete the voting process.

Overall, Wilson said that Native communities are well suited to raise awareness of the need for voter participation, especially in rural communities, because of the ''infrastructure'' that many tribal communities already have in place, such as tribal community centers and tribal offices. He also gives credit to those concerned individuals who can educate and motivate others on the importance of voting.

''I think in every community, there is a core group of people who are very interested and very passionate about issues dealing with Native communities. I think our communities can help create those small groups of people who can help get other people interested in making a difference in our communities.''