“Suddenly, we have resources for get-out-the-vote,” said Pine Ridge Indian Reservation resident Kevin Killer, who’s Oglala Lakota and represents the area in the South Dakota House of Representatives.
With control of the U.S. Senate at stake, the nation’s eyes have abruptly shifted to South Dakota’s Senate race, and political money is flowing into the state. In the last few days, the scandal-ridden frontrunner, Republican Mike Rounds, has stumbled, while Democrat Rick Weiland and Independent Larry Pressler have picked the pace. The three candidates (one more is a distant fourth) are running to replace retiring Senator Tim Johnson, who was put over the top in 2002 by Native voters in an all-night cliffhanger, as Pine Ridge ballots were counted.
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Once more, South Dakota Native voters, who are largely Democratic, appear to be in the catbird seat. That’s if they can make it to the polls on the state’s Sioux reservations, with their vast distances and minimal transportation access.
This year their chances of casting a ballot are better than ever, said Killer: “That’s thanks to [voting-rights group] Four Directions bringing satellite polling places to reservations, and the get-out-the-vote money we have just received.” Funds are coming from Daily Kos, which is fundraising for reservation GOTV, the National Congress of American Indians, and other sources, said Four Directions legal director Greg Lembrich.
On the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, Four Directions co-head OJ Semans is gearing up for what he called “full-fledged” GOTV: “Between Rosebud and Pine Ridge, we will be going full out during early voting and on Election Day on the state’s two largest reservations.”
Equally important, Semans said, GOTV teams will transport people who want to register, which they may do in South Dakota until October 20. “A recently enacted state law drops voters from the rolls if they haven’t voted for four consecutive elections, so some former voters, as well as new ones, want to sign up,” said Killer. In Shannon County/Pine Ridge, voting strength has dropped to 7,800, from about 9,000 a few elections back, so many may wish to re-up, Killer said.
The 2014 election is piquing Sioux interest. One factor is the sense that Republicans are in disarray, and Democratic votes will really count, according to Killer: “Mike Rounds hasn’t been participating in candidate debates, and there’s a feeling he’s ducking the issues. Even conservatives are concerned and looking for an alternative.”
A related factor is vehement tribal opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline, which Rounds supports. Pressler doesn’t support it but does favor multiple other pipelines crossing treaty lands and affecting tribal communities in other states, reports Sustainable South Dakota.
According to Semans, Sioux voters are also wary of Pressler because, while serving as South Dakota’s U.S. Senator, he attempted to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from returning land to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as allowed under federal law when appropriated land is found to be unneeded. “None of us Sioux liked that,” said Semans.
Also inspiring Pine Ridge voters this year is a referendum to change the name of Shannon County to Oglala Lakota County. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for that,” said Killer. “Of the 1,800 people we talked to while getting signatures to put the measure on the ballot, just 25 were against it, but for reasons like their first name being Shannon. There was no serious opposition.”
A statewide reservation bus tour organized by Dustina Gill of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate to promote voter participation, which set out on Indian Day (Monday, October 13) from the state capital in Pierre, will also drive interest, said Lembrich.
On Election Day, even more tribes may get GOTV, said Semans. “Depending on funds, we may be able to do get-out-the-vote in more places, including Cheyenne River and Crow Creek.”