After spending the eight years in meetings—with state and national legislators, state secretaries of state, and county commissioners and election officials—and helping organize two major federal voting-rights lawsuits, I’m starting to see some light at the end of the equal-rights tunnel. Notably, the Department of Justice now has our backs. On August 26, 2014, in Flagstaff, Arizona, DOJ will consult with tribes on voting rights in Indian country, and will follow up with telephonic meetings on September 3 and 4 (to participate, call 866-524-3160).
I am ecstatic about this and about recent developments in Minnesota. Working on voting equality for tribal nations there was like taking a breath of fresh air. White Earth Nation Chairwoman Dr. Erma J. Vizenor took the lead by inviting the Minnesota secretary of state and county officials to meet about satellite voting offices on reservations. The meeting was well attended, and the participants established a dialogue. Chairwoman Vizenor worked with Eileen O’Connor, Senior Counsel for the Legal Mobilization Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to ensure that everyone understood the importance of the polling places. The White Earth Nation also reached out to the Leech Lake and Red Lake nations, and they made requests to their respective counties for satellite offices on their reservations.
What makes Minnesota stand out was that state and county officials maintained communications with the tribes, never shutting the door on the process. Via ongoing dialogue, the Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Itasca and Mahnomen counties voluntarily agreed to place satellite offices on the three tribal nations. The counties signed onto what we consider the gold standard of equality and placed the offices within the tribal headquarters. The secretary of state was supportive, helping with technical issues when necessary. This was a great moment for Indian country.
The Minnesota process couldn’t have been more different from Four Directions’ journey through South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. In each of these states, counties (except Dewey, in South Dakota) dug in, claiming they didn’t have office space, funding, or additional personnel needed to run reservation polling places—and by the way, they couldn’t hire Indians to help because “we don’t know them,” a coded way of saying they don’t trust us.
In South Dakota, Four Directions offered to pay for the offices, and the Republican secretary of state countered this offer by introducing state legislation to stop any type of donations to counties for such activities. Of course, he did not name Four Directions as an example of a potential donor. Instead, he raised the specter of Bill Gates or a New York City billionaire donating money and thus gaining influence in South Dakota. (Really? Do we have that many moguls wandering around the state? I’d like to meet one.)
In Montana, a Democratic secretary of state was the lead actress in the anti-Indian farce there. In an Oscar-worthy performance, she claimed that the state’s voting program couldn’t handle two offices running simultaneously in one county (we were asked to believe the state was in a kind of electronic stone age; more recently, running two offices has turned out to be easy). She also claimed that a garden-variety negotiation to allow her to exit the voting-rights lawsuit that had to be filed to get the polling places was “extortion,” and that Four Directions staffers were banned from various state and federal offices, including that of Montana’s Senator Jon Tester and the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Now, I cannot say for certain that I am banned from these places, because I prefer to work in Indian country and have not been to Helena, Montana—or Washington, D.C., for that matter. If I do go, I promise you I will attempt to enter these offices. If I am ejected, I will have another adventure to write about. Stay tuned.
Because of all of this, DOJ understands the fights we have had to endure for equality and wants to help. Tribal nations can assist them in two ways. First, participate in the DOJ consultations (location and phone number above). Second, ask your state to provide all statutory requirements in voting to the tribes and their members; for example, if in-person absentee voting is allowed for a certain amount of time in predominantly white communities, it must be allowed for that period of time on reservations as well. Third, contact your state and federal elected officials and ask them to support DOJ’s efforts to ensure voting equality.
Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of Four Directions.