WASHINGTON - "Red Power" is making history in the 2002 mid-term elections.
With control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, Indian votes might make the difference in up to four senate races considered too close to call. Although the votes are expected to favor Democrats, tribal contributions for the first time are trending slightly toward Republicans. According to native power-brokers in Washington, the complex pattern will help protect Indian interests no matter which way the election turns.
This new-found role is generating some backlash, however, and nowhere more strongly than in South Dakota, where a large Lakota population is awakening to politics just as the state's two federal contests, for the U. S. Senate and the at-large House seat, are considered too close to call. Much publicized, and to some outsiders grossly over-blown, charges of voter fraud in new registrations on reservations have echoed in the national media. The chairman of the state Republican Party has called for federal monitors, while some national Indian activists have charged that the affair looks like an attempt to intimidate Indian voters.
South Dakota GOP Chairman Joel Rosenthal sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft requesting, "you send election monitors to South Dakota in sufficient numbers to observe and assure the integrity of our election process." He asked Democratic Party officials to endorse it. Sarah Feinberg, communications director for the South Dakota Democratic Party, said party officials have no intention of signing the letter.
She said the secretary of state and county auditors have conducted fair and accurate elections for many years.
"Federalizing our state election system is an incredibly drastic step to take and is an affront to South Dakota's hardworking election officials," Feinberg said.
Meanwhile, the state commissioner of tribal-government relations urged American Indians to vote despite the allegations of voter fraud. Webster Two Hawk said he is discouraged at the scandal surrounding falsified voter documents. But he said Indians should put the controversy aside and exercise their right to vote.
"You see, our people ... if things get a little questionable, they withdraw," Two Hawk said. "And I hope they don't do that. I hope they just go right on ahead and vote their conscience."
Authorities have said they are investigating two cases of alleged voter fraud.
A Rapid City man on a work-release program from a local jail has been charged with submitting fraudulent voter-registration cards. A woman who worked for the South Dakota Democratic Party is under investigation for discrepancies in voter registrations and absentee-ballot requests in Dewey and Ziebach counties.
Auditors in 10 South Dakota counties have turned over a total of nearly 400 questionable voter-registration forms to investigators. All but one of the 10 counties abut an Indian reservation.
Some conservative columnists have seized on these 400 forms to warn of massive voter fraud, echoing a pattern of behavior that Democrats charge was used in Florida in the 2000 election to reduce minority turnout.
One columnist, John Boulet, writing in the National Review web site, warned that South Dakota's bi-lingual voting law would allow large numbers of illiterate, non-English speaking Indians who lacked an alphabet to be manipulated by interpreters.
Nonetheless, tribal political strategists have been giving more than an even break to Republican fund-raisers, according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics. Tribal campaign contributors have given 55 percent of their money to Republicans for the 2002 election, compared with 21 percent for all of the 2000 election, according to Federal Election Commission data as of Oct. 22.
Leaders in the switch include he Eastern Band of Cherokees of Cherokee, N.C, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians of Temecula, Calif., and the Mashantucket Pequot tribe in Ledyard, Conn.
"I don't think it's a great, great mystery,' said John Guevremont, director of national government affairs for the Mashantucket Pequots, who own the Foxwoods Casino Resort in eastern Connecticut. "Our efforts are with the party in power.
Through June, the tribes collectively gave $1.3 million to national political candidates and parties for the 2002 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of Palm Springs, Calif., said tribes historically have given more to Democrats.
"There's a false sense that Republicans don't vote yes on Indian issues," he said. "I think it's smart to contribute to both."
(Staff and Associated Press reports.)