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Population growth, voting eligibility examined

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PIERRE, S.D. - South Dakota soon could claim the second largest American Indian population per capita in the country, but American Indian voters say limited access to polling places discourages many from casting ballots in state elections.

New Census figures show South Dakota ranks third in the nation with the highest Native American population, quickly gaining on New Mexico which ranked second behind Arizona, policy analyst Reuben Bezpaletz told state lawmakers examining redistricting.

The Native American population is increasing at a rapid rate while similar populations in other states are decreasing, he said. The statistics made a compelling argument for carefully examining the issue of equal representation in state government and adequate access to polling places for the state's tribal voters.

"Years ago, we were sixth or seventh. By the time we come around to the census in 2010, South Dakota will almost assuredly be Number 2, surpassed only by Alaska," Bezpaletz told the State Tribal Relations Committee.

"In South Dakota, more Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribal members are living both on reservations and in cities."

The 2000 Census figures show American Indians make up 8.25 percent of South Dakota's population, compared to 9.54 percent in New Mexico, 15.64 percent in Alaska and 4.88 percent in North Dakota.

A high American Indian birthrate, coupled with a decreasing white population in rural areas, put South Dakota on track for an ever-increasing percentage of American Indian residents.

These populations are growing in other states, too, but other racial groups are growing faster.

"In most other states, the percentage of Native Americans is actually decreasing, mostly because of a large in-migration from other folks. New Mexico is growing very rapidly, but most of the new people are either Latinos or whites. Even though the Native American population is increasing, the percentage of Native Americans in New Mexico is actually decreasing," Bezpaletz said.

In Dewey County, on the Cheyenne River Reservation, other groups moved out. The white population dropped by more than 20 percent since 1990, and the American Indian population grew by 20 percent, leading to an overall population increase of 8 percent.

"We see a very dramatic two-way demographic going on," Bezpaletz said, noting not only the American Indian population increase, but the age range of tribal members residing in South Dakota's 11 principal reservation counties.

"They are not only younger, they are dramatically younger. Indian residents average 20 percent younger."

He said the age demographic suggests American Indians will be underrepresented in the polls because fewer are eligible to vote because much of the increase is below the voting age.

"That has tremendous implications."

For every thousand people counted in the 2000 Census, 770 of the state's white residents are eligible to vote, while among Native American counterparts only about half of the population is old enough to vote.

The American Indian population increase was mirrored in urban areas including Pennington County where the Lakota population increased by 22.7 percent and Hughes County, home of the state capital, where the Lakota population grew 44.3 percent.

Although it isn't immediately clear what the changes will mean for the state, the legislative committee charged with drawing new legislative districts must deal with the shifts this summer. The committee will meet on both Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations later this month.

American Indian voters in South Dakota have been less active than their counterparts in other regions of the nation.

"Our Lakota are not very politically active in comparison to the Kiowa and Comanche in Oklahoma," Bezpaletz said.

But, he added, the tribes in more metropolitan regions of the nation have become more politically active because of affluence and states that have more carefully monitored federal election rules concerning the equal representation of minorities.

Fewer Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people run for office and fewer participate in state elections, in part said American Indian representatives on the committee, because some tribal voters feel tribal elections have a greater impact on their lives than state issues or candidates might.

Even so, those who have run for state seats, say their voice still needs to be heard and the increase in the American Indian population allows less representation for tribal residents if they don't go to the polls during state elections.

Rep. Paul Valandra, D-Mission, an enrolled Rosebud Sioux tribal member, said the Native American voter turnout peaked in 1986. Since then there have been fewer tribal voters at the polls for general and state elections.

"I think 1986 was the best year we had. That is when (Tom) Daschle was going from the Congress to the senate," he said.

Some tribal members consider tribal sovereignty as a reason not to vote in state elections, others said.

Rep. Thomas Van Norman, D-Eagle Butte, and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said poverty, coupled with the lack of accessibility to polling places, is impeding voters.

A language barrier also stands in the way of some tribal elders who shy away from the polls because they speak and read only their native language. Ballots at the polling places, even for some tribal elections, are printed in English.

"Much of the language on the ballots is overwhelming for voters trying to understand what they are voting on," Sen. Richard Hagen, D-Pine Ridge, and an Oglala Lakota, said.

The language of some ballot issues is confusing even for some lawyers to decipher and more difficult for voters who are not sure what it means, they said.

Sen. Ron J. Volesky, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said tribal members need greater access. The Huron Democrat already on the campaign trail seeking the governor's office, said the population figures suggest that while the tribal members show "a tremendous growth in the population, there is less political influence and less political power because it is a younger influence.

"We need to be more sensitive. Nine of the 100 poorest counties in the nation are in South Dakota. We need to underline the importance of Native American issues in the state. Indian people need to be more active politically. Polling places need to be the same places as they are when there are tribal elections. The state and tribes can coordinate the polling places," he said.

"If we coordinated it, we might have better turnout," Volesky said.

On average, between 52 percent and 56 percent of South Dakota's American Indian population is eligible to vote, compared to about 75 percent of the white population, Bezpaletz said.

Poverty, lack of transportation and small reservation communities discourage tribal members from voting, Van Norman, said. He drove two carloads of people to the polls for the most recent election, and his brother had to travel to three different polling places before finding the correct spot, Van Norman said, adding that it is not unusual to make a round trip of more than 50 miles.

Counties across the state have closed polling places to cut costs, lawmakers said.

Sen. Jim Putnam, R-Armour, said the problem extends beyond the reservations to those living in rural areas of the state. "We have similar problems in my district."

Putnam said his district polling places have been cut from 13 to five to save on election costs. Two counties within reservation borders, Todd and Shannon, don't have courthouses so, unlike many South Dakota residents, those who reside in the rural counties don't have the luxury of going to the courthouse to vote, he said.

Because most American Indians in South Dakota vote Democratic, it's conceivable reservations will be grouped together for legislative representation. American Indian lawmakers cautioned their peers that political equality between the races will require more than voting districts weighted in their favor.

They reminded the group that far fewer among the dramatically younger American Indian population are old enough to vote and fewer of those eligible adults vote due to a variety of factors.

Van Norman said county commissioners dictated sites for polling places and hinted they had placed them well beyond the boundaries for American Indian voters. He said he favors a minimum travel distance of 15 miles to a polling place.

To ensure that American Indians are adequately represented, the Legislature should look at a standard established for other minority voting districts, called the "three fives rule."

It requires an additional 5 percent of voters to overcome the younger population, an additional 5 percent to account for a lower level of voting participation, and 5 percent for poverty when calculating population within districts.

Widely used in areas with significant minority populations that would otherwise be underrepresented, the rule allows greater weight to be given to the minority population. It arose in court cases over inequities in representation of African American and Latino populations and is invoked to prevent racial gerrymandering.

South Dakota hasn't collaborated with the tribes by initiating an integrated method for voter registration, some testified. Thus tribal members must register twice in order to vote, once with the tribe to vote in tribal elections and with county officials to vote in state and national elections.

It was said the committee is looking at streamlining at least the polling places so tribal members can return to the same polling place.