Can you hear me now?
Today, many associate this question with cell phone providers who famously boast of the coverage of their networks—even if such coverage does not extend to South Dakota and the sacred Black Hills. But for too many members of the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota nations in South Dakota, the question is not a slogan but a question relating to our most fundamental right – our right to vote.
In 2014, the Native American voter participation rate was among the lowest of any group in the country. Nearly two out of five eligible Native Americans are not registered to vote. And while 2014 witnessed the lowest national voter turnout since World War II, we know that the systemic voting challenges faced by tribal people can be solved.
Gann Valley, with a population of 14, is also the polling place for District 26B that serves the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. This is because Gann Valley is county seat for Buffalo County, one of the poorest counties in the nation. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe is headquartered in Ft. Thompson, with a population of 1,282. Nevertheless, in a county where many struggle to find a ride to the much larger headquarters, Native American voters are expected to travel over 26 miles to cast a ballot in tiny Gann Valley.
The experience for Crow Creek Sioux isn’t unique. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, folks in the Wanblee community have to drive 54 miles round trip to the Jackson County seat to cast their ballot. Pine Ridge has long been considered the poorest reservation community in the nation.
OJ Seamans, a Rosebud Sioux Tribal member, started the Four Directions organization to help combat the problem. Despite OJ’s efforts to raise enough money to open additional polling places on the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe’s reservations, he still encountered opposition from the Buffalo County and Jackson County Election Boards. These counties lie, mostly, within the respective tribal community.
In South Dakota, Four Directions worked with the Secretary of State, State Election Board and the Help America Vote Act Task Force to develop a formula to assist counties with funding satellite voting locations on reservations – at no cost to the counties. Disappointedly, Buffalo and Jackson Counties still refuse to allow the satellite offices to be established on the reservations even though it does not cost them a penny.
Democracy in Native communities is working at the tribal level but broken in state elections. Members are registered to vote in tribal elections and participate in the tribal elections process where they know they have a strong voice in shaping their local communities and the laws passed. And tribal members are able to see results—we have firsthand experience calling upon their tribal council members to be heard.
Unfortunately, in state elections too often we do not vote in high numbers and we do not see change at the local level. It is going to take a lot of work to convince people in my district as well as others across reservation communities that state government cares about their concerns. We leave a lot of resources on the table for other districts when we don’t participate in elections.
In 2015, in an effort to limit hurdles between Native Americans and the ballot box, Senators Tester, Franken, Heitkamp, and Udall cosponsored the Native American Voting Rights Act which would increase voter protections and access to the polls for Native Americans. The Native American Voting Rights Act would require each state to establish polling locations on reservations upon request from the tribe, including early voting locations in states that allow votes to be cast prior to Election Day. Additionally, the bill directs state election administrators to mail absentee ballots to the homes of all registered voters if requested by the tribe and establishes tribal IDs as a valid form of identification.
There is an undeniable connection between voter participation and access to resources. I believe that with greater participation we can reverse the condition on many of our reservations where socio-economic and health statistics resemble those for third world counties. Our Black Hills provided the gold that transformed the wealth of the United States. Our votes can be just as powerful.
We must support and pass commonsense bills like the Native American Voting Rights Act – and we must give state and local governments no choice but to provide greater access to the polls. Only once tribal communities register for and participate in state elections with the same enthusiasm as we do for a tribal elections will the answer to the question “Can You Hear Me Now?” be a resounding yes.
Shawn Bordeaux is a Democratic member of the South Dakota House of Representatives, representing District 26A. He was first elected to the chamber in 2014.