Although controversy over possible voter registration fraud has clouded the situation, it would appear that American Indian voters in South Dakota may just be the decisive factor in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate. We urge Indian voters not to be discouraged by the registration controversy and to make their decision and their vote count. A strong showing by Indian voters this year will establish a serious political position for South Dakota tribes and will be a source of pride for Indians everywhere.
A recent Associated Press analysis revealed that voter registration in South Dakota counties that overlap or encompass Indian reservations had grown by ten percent or more since the June primary. A voter registration drive by Democratic Party workers would appear to be the cause of the rise in Indian registered voters, which strongly outpaced registration in non-Native counties.
AP's survey of databases updated by county auditors indicates significant voter gains in seven counties. To be sure, the overall number of additional Indian voters is relatively small, ranging from approximately 3,400 to 10,000. Nevertheless, South Dakota's 63,000 Indians, who comprise 8.3 percent of the population, have strong propensity to support Democratic Party candidates. This may make Indian voters king-makers in South Dakota this year. Particularly in the very tight Senate race between incumbent U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Republican opponent John Thune and in the equally close congressional race pitting Republican Governor William Janklow against Democratic newcomer Stephanie Herseth, it would appear that the Indian vote can gain a foothold and be a decisive factor. The outcome of the first race could very well determine who controls the U.S. Senate over the next two years. It would also establish a very clear idea of what a fruitful working relationship with tribes can mean for the state's politicians. This can make a serious difference for a beleaguered tribal leadership seeking to expand their political influence.
Putting wrinkles on the Indian voting potential are widely reported accusations of voter registration fraud. The allegations of fraud are under investigation by the South Dakota Attorney General. Three counties, Dewey, Shannon and Ziebach, overlapping Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge Reservations reported irregularities leading to possible fraud. The irregularities consisted of registration of deceased persons, duplications and the forging of some signatures. These were partly blamed on a Democratic Party employee who has since been fired.
The case of potential fraud is most unfortunate. However, even a spokesman for the Secretary of State's office, while mentioning the fraud factor, which that office, along with the FBI, is investigating, pointed to the intense voter registration drive in those counties, and not fraud, as being overwhelmingly responsible for the high numbers.
In South Dakota, the political moment is quite ripe for Indian picking. It is a Democratic moment. While President Bush carried South Dakota with 60 percent of the vote in 2000, Democrat Al Gore won among voters in the state's Indian reservations. Then too, six years ago, when Senator Johnson defeated incumbent Republican Larry Pressler, many observers credited his win to the Indian vote.
Johnson is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who has worked closely with South Dakota Native nations. His campaign has re-election offices on every reservation. By contrast, Republicans don't have any particular person in the state to do outreach among the American Indian population.
The razor thin margins (the state's senior senator, Tom Daschle, won his first race for Congress by 139 votes) make South Dakota's Indian population crucial. In the congressional race, Herseth is running slightly ahead of Janklow. Janklow, who has been around forever, has lots of baggage, particularly with Indians. During the heyday of the American Indian Movement in South Dakota, Janklow often appeared virulently anti-Indian, dismissing the causes of Indian grievances and doggedly pursuing the Indian leadership wherever it confronted the state. His blunt style (he once said the only way to negotiate with AIM leaders was to put a gun to their heads) alienated much of the Indian voting base.
To be fair, it is equally true that Janklow put in a seven-year stint as a legal aid worker on Rosebud and has many Indian friends.
Nov. 5 is Election Day for many tribal elections. This factor should also stimulate high voter turnout this year. South Dakota Indian voters will do well this election year to establish a forceful identity. By playing a strong election card on Nov. 5, they will signal an extremely important base of political clout. If they vote overwhelmingly Democratic, as expected, they may control and determine the balance of power on a national level and influence the course of American politics. History may never be the same.