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Lakota People's Law Project

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has partnered with the Lakota People’s Law Project to get out the vote in Indian Country. They have hired canvassers to go door to door on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to make sure members obtain and submit mail-in ballots, and they’re running a high-tech phone bank to get out the vote both at home and in swing states with large Native populations, like North Carolina and Arizona.

“The big picture is that we must rally the Native vote to make sure it’s impactful — and also as a means of empowering our people,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribe councilwoman Avis Little Eagle. “I really appreciate what the Lakota People’s Law Project is doing, making sure people are registered, have proper IDs, and are encouraged to vote early. Everything we’re doing on the ground together is so important, not just because it can make a difference in election results. It also shows our people how powerful their voices really are.”

So far, the get-out-the-vote effort has hired and trained more than 30 tribal organizers. Using data-driven targeting and leveraging advanced technology to increase efficiency, workers are talking to tens of thousands of voters. In addition to boosting the number of people casting ballots in an historically important election, the effort has put Standing Rock members to work learning valuable skills at a time when securing work is harder than ever — on the reservation and off.

Melanie Thompson is a Standing Rock Sioux Tribe member, and now she’s a phone banking leader. Thompson grew up on the south side of Standing Rock and moved to Fort Yates when she was 12. She said finding good work has been difficult, so she jumped at the opportunity to dive into something she already cares about deeply. “For the past couple years, I’ve been really advocating Native voting,” she said. “Maybe if we vote, then things will start changing.”

Thompson said it’s inspiring to help the team achieve success. “They care as much about voting as I do; they’re really into it. It’s exciting when we can get the people from other Native tribes we’re calling to say, ‘I’m going to vote.’”

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Many Native voters in North Dakota faced a serious hurdle in 2018, when a new law enacted just prior to the election required them to present identification with street addresses. Many tribal residents do not have numbered addresses at their homes, and instead rely on PO boxes. That year, the tribe partnered with the Lakota People’s Law Project and other nonprofit groups to canvass the reservation, print new, valid IDs, and ultimately more than double turnout over the prior midterm election.

In 2020, that barrier still remains in place for some Standing Rock members. And it’s part of a larger pattern nationwide. Between 2010 and 2018, 24 states passed laws restricting access to the vote, in almost all cases citing the need for such measures to prevent voter fraud — a problem that does not exist in any meaningful way in the U.S. today.

According to data aggregated by the ACLU, voter identification laws could prevent more than 21 million people otherwise eligible from voting. Voter ID laws can also be used to discriminate against targeted groups, because requirements are more likely to be enforced against people of color.

Standing Rock straddles the border of North Dakota and South Dakota, so its members face a range of barriers. Little Eagle said that’s one reason the tribe has signed onto promoting the Native American Voting Rights Act, designed by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) to help Indigenous populations vote.

Lakota People’s Law Project Standing Rock Organizer Phyllis Young said that, while she’s seen it all over many years as a Standing Rock elder, she remains hopeful thanks to the resilience exhibited by her tribe’s younger members.

“Voting is an exercise at the highest level. I commend our young people, who understand the importance and the technology at our disposal,” Young said. “I thank them for stepping up, for coming to utilize their talents and abilities and get on those phones and those tablets. I think it’s critical and important that they learn how to do these things. We are living in the age of digital democracy, and contemporary history tells us that we have made a difference through our participation.”

The Lakota People's Law Project operates under the 501(c)(3) Romero Institute, a nonprofit law and policy center.

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