During the campaign to close out the final race of the midterm congressional elections for North Carolina’s Ninth District, Native voter activists and Lumbee tribal members sought to make a difference in this race, and it appears they did.
While Chairman Harvey Godwin said that his tribe’s membership has had low voter turnout in past elections, that wasn’t the case this time. He and Four Directions Co-Executive Director O.J. Semans, Rosebud Sioux, worked to change that.
Republican Dan Bishop prevailed over Democrat Dan McCready, both of Charlotte, by a vote of 96,004 to 92,066 with 99.65 percent of precincts reporting. But as predicted, it was a close race.
Four Directions and Semans, who were responsible for the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, in August, seeks to increase tribal voter participation and to obtain equal access to the ballot boxes.
Four Directions was in the territory of the Lumbee Tribe seeking to increase voter turnout and to let the tribe get the members voices heard in this election. “The reason we do it is to empower tribes and tribal members,” Semans said. “We do that all over the country. The more active that they are in the elections, the better they are treated by elected officials.” Semans was pleased. “It looks like it worked out great for the Lumbee tribe.”
“I think you’ll see the highest amount they ever turned out,” Semans said. “There are 16 precincts (in the Lumbees’ territory) and we worked all of them.”
Godwin said Semans is doing his work at the right time for Indian Country.
“We’ve been working very closely with them. They’ve been on the ground here going on four weeks. We’ll work with them into the future.”
According to Godwin, the Lumbees’ territory spans the counties of Robeson, Hoke, Scotland and Cumberland counties. No results were available from Hoke County online, but McCready carried Robeson and Scotland Counties, both by close margins. Bishop prevailed in Cumberland County, also home to Fayetteville and Fort Bragg. But it was also by a close margin, and turnout in those three counties was roughly 30 percent. Turnout district wide was close to 25 percent.
The North Carolina Board of Elections refused to certify the results of last November’s contest that put incumbent Mark Harris, R-North Carolina, as the winner. After conducting investigations that found falsified absentee ballots, the board of elections ordered a new election. While Harris wasn’t implicated, he decided not to run in the special election.
The race is one that has drawn national interest. President Donald Trump held a rally Monday in nearby Fayetteville for Bishop. Vice President Mike Pence was in the area as well.
The Lumbees can see what can happen when their members turn out the vote and participate by looking across the state. Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians member Ben Bushyhead, D-Cherokee, was elected Chairman of the Swain County Commissioners with about one-third of his votes coming from fellow tribal members. District 30B Superior Court Judge Brad Letts, D-Cherokee, was elected with help of his fellow Eastern Cherokees, who overwhelmingly cast their ballots for him.
With the race between McCready and Bishop considered a tossup, Letts said Natives need to vote. “It’s important when you have a close election that tribal members get out and vote. It could come down to a percent or two.”
Bushyhead said the Lumbee vote could sway the results. “I think it can. I really do.” And that’s why he urges people to vote. He dismisses the notion that people’s votes don’t matter, a feeling that has been expressed both on the Cherokee Indian Reservation and in Lumbee territory. “My election as a commissioner and my election as chair proves the falsehood of that.”
Four Directions got its start in 2002 with voter registration drives. Semans said that his wife worked for Sen. Tim Johnson, D-South Dakota in 2000, and he noticed at the victory celebration there were no Natives on stage, and no tribal representatives either. He has since sought to engage tribes and their members in the political process. “It was no longer the parties who were going to take credit for native participation.”
Semans also said his work in Arizona with the Navajo Nation helped elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona. He felt they could make a similar impact in the Ninth District. “The Lumbee tribe is the deal breaker.”
Pearlean Revels, Lumbee, is chair of the Robeson County Democratic Party. While Revels didn’t feel the Lumbee vote swayed things one way or the other, she praised the work of Four Directions. “For a special election it was a pretty good turnout. I’m pleased with the turnout. I think they did a great job. They worked real hard.”
While Godwin couldn’t say where he felt most of the tribal members were leaning up to Election Day, but he said Lumbee voters were motivated by the issues affecting them, most notably obtaining federal recognition. Other issues of importance were disaster recovery, disaster threat response, housing and housing for homeless vets. “Our people vote their hearts and their convictions. It could go either way.”
Semans’ daughter Donna Semans, Director of Grassroots Organization for Four Directions, said it’s hard to say what issues got voters to the polls, but she said, “Votes were tossed last time. That’s what brought some in.”
Four Directions never tries to sway the results in any particular direction, nor do they tell people how to vote. “All we want them to do is cast a ballot,” the elder Semans said, and he stands on his record. He said there never has been a time when they didn’t increase turnout by 100 percent or more. “We point to areas where we worked before, where we able to increase the native turnout.” He points to the increase in the number of Native Americans in state offices, school boards and other local offices. “That’s a positive thing. We are making great strides.”
While Godwin acknowledged that it’s difficult to get people to turnout for any election, he still urged his tribe to be engaged and participate. He joined the call of others to go to the polls and vote. With 55,000 enrolled members, the Lumbees are a large voting bloc in the state. “Your one vote can a make a difference.”
The elder Semans said their work paid off. “I’m pretty happy that the tribe got do something. The people were very successful. Of course we had a little bit to do with it.” He plans to continue with the same plan in 2020. “It proves that our 2020 plan will work. We plan on repeating tonight. It’s not a party issue. It’s a native issue. And natives spoke loud and clear.”
Joseph Martin is a former editor and staff writer for The Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C., and former associate editor and staff writer for the Cherokee Scout in Murphy, N.C. and Andrews Journal in Andrews, N.C. He is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Cover: Dan Bishop, a Republican, won North Carolina's special election Tuesday. (Campaign photo.)