Out of the 50,000 Oglala Lakotas enrolled on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, 5,000 are likely to make it to the polls, said District of Oglala President Floyd Brings Plenty.
Brings Plenty, who is not running for reelection this year due to “health issues,” said the lack of voter turnout on Pine Ridge is primarily a transportation issue.
He said many Oglala families live in isolated areas of the reservation, and without adequate transportation, eligible voters will likely stay at home on November 6.
“[That’s our] biggest issue,” he said.
Brings Plenty said, in previous elections, candidates running for office at the state and national levels have sent caravans to Pine Ridge to help those without transportation get to polling places.
“In the last election, the two national level candidates had groups of people down here,” he said. “They had vans. They hauled anyone who wanted to vote to the polls. I don’t know if they’re going to do that again this year. … Unless they come down to haul people, people won’t get to the polls for the national election.”
David Benson, campaign manager for U.S. House of Representatives candidate Matt Varilek, said the Varilek campaign plans to send a caravan to Pine Ridge as well as other nearby reservations on Election Day to help Natives get to the polls.
Benson said he doesn’t have a specific number of vehicles yet or how many people will travel to Indian country next month, but that it’s currently in the works.
“There is a plan for [a] Native get-out-the-vote effort,” he said. “We plan to be able to have the resources to do that.”
Although the Varilek campaign is slated to help with transporting Oglalas and other American Indians to their respective polling places, for the first time since the 2000 election, the Democratic Party of South Dakota will not be able to assist with any transportation on Pine Ridge.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as aggressive from our side,” said Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the Democratic Party of South Dakota. “That has do to with a lack of resources this year.”
Nesselhuf said it would cost an estimated $50,000 to conduct a caravan field operation in Shannon County.
“If you want to do it across the state at every rez it’s about $150,000,” he said.
Nesselhuf said their funding is low because they do not have a Democrat in office and that it’s typically the federal office holder who raises the funds for field operations.
“We’re running a shoe-string operation this year because we don’t have those resources,” he said.
Nesselhuf expects significant interest this year in the congressional race from Indian country across South Dakota since republican incumbent Kristi Noem’s record shows that she missed 17 of 22 Indian Affairs subcommittees in a 12-month period.
Varilek’s campaign released Noem’s record last month. In response, congresswoman Noem said she missed those meetings to attend others.
“Congresswoman Noem has an abysmal attendance record,” said Nesselhuf. “On all six counties [in South Dakota] people are very aware of her track record.”
Brings Plenty said, this year, two polling locations will be set up at either end of the district to make it easier for Oglalas to vote.
Still, Brings Plenty said regardless of the dual locations, the trek can be quite arduous for the reservation’s most isolated families, including the elders.
“[They’ll live] like a mile or two or ten miles away from the voting area,” he said. “The Oglala district from [east to west] is like 20 miles—from north to south it’s at least 40 miles. That’s why [we] try to get one voting place on [either] side.”
Even with the potential of Varilek’s campaign to help with the to and fro on Election Day, Brings Plenty said some elders may still opt out of voting because they lack the physical mobility.
“Some elders have a hard time getting out of a car let alone a van,” he said.
Other elders, he said, will only vote for their tribal elected officials and not the state or national elections.
“Some will just vote at the tribal level and leave, and they won’t vote for the national election because they don’t comprehend what’s going on,” he said.
When told that a caravan, courtesy of the Varilek campaign, will be at Pine Ridge in November, Brings Plenty said that if the candidates seek votes they’ll make it happen.
“I assumed they would if they wanted any kind of results,” said Brings Plenty. “I guess what I could do is let the people know.”
Incumbent Kristi Noem could not be reached for comment.