SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -American Indian voting power re-elected U.S. Tim Johnson, D - S.D. in one of the closest races in the 2002 mid-term elections.
Johnson, who was targeted by the Bush administration for defeat, should retain his seat in the Senate and on the Indian Affairs and Appropriations committees, both crucial for Indian country.
"I think the Native vote developed into a power that is showcasing to the world," Johnson said. "I think politicians from every stripe will have to deal with the Native vote. This is a real presence in South Dakota. I hope we don't go back to the bad old days of Native concerns; this was a lesson heard around the world that Native power is part of the political process and can't be ignored."
President Bush hand-selected Rep. John Thune, R-S.D. to run against Johnson, diverting him from a run at the South Dakota governor's office. The president made four visits to South Dakota to stump for Thune and other Republican candidates, emphasizing South Dakota as a key election to regain control of the U.S. Senate for the Republicans.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 6, Sen. Johnson was behind by 3,000 votes. Set behind by votes that came in from the western part of the state, which is predominantly Republican, Johnson said he went to bed for an hour. When he rose and took a shower, he found that some of the precincts around Pine Ridge Village hadn't yet reported. When they did, it turned the tide. Johnson was ahead and stayed that way the rest of the morning.
"Those were the precincts that put us past Thune," Johnson said. With all precincts reporting, Johnson was 528 votes ahead
The official tally, based on a statewide canvassing to check the math, will take a week. Rep. Thune will decide then whether or not to seek a complete recount or take some legal action. The state Republican Party raised the possibility that irregularities might have occurred in some of the precincts on the Rosebud Reservation.
The Republican Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine and the Republican Attorney General Mark Barnett ruled that there was no intent to commit fraud and the confusion came over the fact that part of the district is in the Central Time Zone while the other was in the Mountain Time Zone. Polling locations had difficulty translating the laws when it applied to the two time zones in the same precinct. Johnson said there was nothing scandalous.
Also some confusion arose at Pine Ridge over a few ballots that were marked with a different type of pen, but those ballots were read by hand.
"If there is a change in the numbers or evidence of irregularities after the official canvass, I will look at pursuing the next step in the process, which is a formal recount," Thune said.
"However, I do not want to put the people of South Dakota through this process unless it is absolutely necessary. Therefore, if there is no change in the vote totals or any irregularities after the official canvass, we will pursue no further action and the results will stand," he said.
Accusations of voter fraud are nothing new for this election. Prior to the Nov. 5 election alleged voter fraud was detected in about 15 registration cards and absentee ballot applications that were attributed to Indian reservations and that came from an American Indian organization that paid workers to register voters. One person was fired and another charged with fraud.
Johnson said he was a little concerned that the flap over the alleged fraud would deter voters on the reservations, but record numbers voted.
Some towns on reservations now have 100 percent voter registration. The Democratic Party made a major push to register voters and get out the vote on reservations.
"The state is better because of Indian voter participation," Johnson said.
Hazeltine has said previously that the system in South Dakota is one of the best and inaccuracies are very rare. Johnson supported that statement when he said the technical portion of the election process in South Dakota is "squeaky clean."
The day and night before the election Sen. Johnson and Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. flew around the state and visited the reservations one last time; Pine Ridge was included in the tour.
"We put a lot of emphasis on urging the Native vote and I'm just really pleased how well it went. The voter turnout was higher than it's ever been," said Johnson.
"I think the tribes are likely to be treated with much more respect by political leaders now that Native power has flexed its muscle."
For Johnson the rise in participation in the electoral process was well timed.
"This experience with success should lead to still more native voter activism," Johnson said.
He speculated that little would change with the Indian affairs committee due to the Republican victories. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii now serves as chairman and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., will most likely return to the chairman's position.
Johnson also benefited from the American Indian vote in 1996 when he was the only person to defeat an incumbent, Larry Presser, for a Senate seat.
"I needed the Native vote in 1996, but this one was more dramatic, the margin and timing for the Pine Ridge precincts being counted among the highlights," Johnson said.
The American Indian vote was not strong enough to overcome larger Republican leads for the U.S. House of Representatives and the governor's race or to elect an American Indian candidate for Attorney General.
Governor Bill Janklow defeated Stephanie Herseth for the House seat vacated by John Thune.
Republican Mike Rounds defeated Democrat Jim Abbott for governor.
Ron Volesky, a member of the Standing Rock Reservation, failed in his bid for State Attorney General. He also lost a bid for Governor in the primary election.
Shannon County, which is totally located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, gave 2,856 votes to Johnson and 248 to Thune. Todd County on the Rosebud Reservation turned in 2,027 votes for Johnson and only 464 for Thune. Dewey County on the Cheyenne River Reservation, where some of the irregular absentee ballot applications were found, gave Johnson 1,678 votes to 598 for Thune.
Herseth received 2,857 votes from Shannon County to 208 for Gov. Bill Janklow. Todd County also supported Herseth with a 1,939 tally to 515 for Janklow. The numbers brought the race closer, but the lead for Janklow was well established with western South Dakota votes.
American Indian candidate Terry Begay came up with 3,316 total votes for the U.S. House position, running as a Libertarian. It was his first try at the position.
Thomas Van Norman, attorney and tribal member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe was re-elected to the state house. Paul Valandra, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was also reelected to the state house.
Richard "Dick" Hagen, Oglala Lakota, long-time state representative and state senator, passed on in September, but he posthumously received the most votes for his senate seat - 4,505 votes to his challenger's 1,030. The governor will be expected to appoint someone to fill that position, or Republican Larry Wright, who challenged Hagen, will fill the seat.