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Native Vote Packs a Punch—Again

A column by Oliver J. Semans about Native Americans voting.

Who would think that a group that makes up about one percent of the overall population could carry such a wallop? From 2000, when we defeated infamous “Indian fighter” U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (R-Washington) and replaced him with Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), to 2012, when we re-elected Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), we’ve been the deciders in states where our vote made the crucial difference.

It’s not about the candidates, though, or their parties. Neither major political party has clean hands when it comes to suppressing the Native vote. Case in point: Four Directions Inc., the voting-rights organization I co-direct, is involved in fighting two major lawsuits. One calls out Montana’s head election official, Democrat Linda McCulloch, and the other names South Dakota’s voting czar, Republican Jason Gant, for failing to support Native voting equality.

It is about empowering tribal members. Four Directions, which I run with Barb Semans, is nonpartisan and dedicated to Native voter protection and education, get-out-the-vote activities and a crazy idea called equality. Our goal is to increase Native voting and thereby the ability of Native people to better their own lives.

And it’s working. In 2012, turnout in Buffalo County, South Dakota, home of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, was up 18.6 points over the 2008 election. The county saw 74.3 percent turnout in 2012, as opposed to 55.7 percent in 2008. This was by far the largest increase of any county in the state.

Meanwhile, over in Dewey County, South Dakota, home of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, turnout was up 7.6 points from 2008—62.1 percent this year as opposed to 54.5 percent in 2008. That included double-digit increases in two precincts. Turnout statewide this year was down more than 3.3 points from the 2008 election, making these increases even more significant.

How did this happen? To a large degree, it was because the two counties agreed to set up early-voting satellite stations in tribal headquarters—the business center of any reservation, where many people may go during a state’s designated early-voting period. This dramatically eased access to the vote on reservations where distances are long, and vehicle and gas availability are low.

Dewey County went about this in an especially cost-effective way, naming a tribal member as deputy county auditor in charge of the process locally. This county is, in fact, a model of efficiency and cooperation. Rather than wasting time and precious resources by digging in and opposing equality for Native voters (including waging costly lawsuits), state and county governments should work cooperatively with tribes—as Dewey County did with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

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For Four Directions, it all started in 2004, when we observed that the state of South Dakota made it easier for citizens to vote by allowing early voting for any reason for a whole 42 days prior to the election. There was one catch, though: It was not easier if you were an Indian on a reservation. To early-vote, you had to travel to the county building—generally in a distant white on-reservation or border town. The trip was long and expensive, and tribal members worried about possible harassment and profiling by law enforcement on the way.

At first, Four Directions tried negotiating with counties, and we had some success. We were able to establish satellite early-voting stations on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. Election participation increased 225 percent on the former and 245 percent on the latter. Of course, Four Directions had to pay for this equality—the costs of opening and running the offices—but by doing so, we felt we got our foot in the door. However, once our funding ran out, so did equality. Early voting dwindled to just a few days on these two reservations.

Members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe decided to Sioux, sorry I meant sue, the counties and the state for equality, and Four Directions worked with them. That lawsuit is going very well, even though South Dakota’s head election official tried to remove himself from it. The judge denied his request. The suit also kicked off the release of Help America Vote Act money to fund the satellite offices and some cooperation from the county, at least for now.

We at Four Directions are now working with our brothers and sisters in Montana, who are also denied equal access to voting. We were involved in election protection there earlier this month and are helping tribes and tribal members fight a suit alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act in Montana.

We may not have been the first ones to figure out the power of the Native vote. That was, in fact, those individuals who specialize in voter suppression. But we see what they’re doing and want to let you know that they’re right: We’re a force to be reckoned with.

What they don’t know: We can’t be stopped.

Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of Four Directions.