“Voters walking into the polling place would see the sheriff there and veer off,” said Donna Semans, the Rosebud Sioux field coordinator for Four Directions voting-rights group. “If I was driving them to the polls, they’d spot the sheriff’s vehicle out front and tell me, ‘No way. I’m not going in there.’”
Semans runs Four Directions’ get-out-the-vote, or GOTV, operation on the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota. Since mid-October, her team has transported voters from around the 2.1-million acre reservation to a polling place in Pine Ridge Village. There they can register and cast a no-excuse absentee ballot ahead of Election Day.
Then one day, the county sheriff showed up in the voting office, and the moccasin telegraph started working overtime. Tribal members warned each other that casting a ballot might be a way to get arrested. “Word spread like a grass fire,” said Semans. The number of people wanting rides to the election office dropped from more than 100 a day into the teens.
Were the concerns farfetched? Not at all, said OJ Semans, Donna’s father and co-director of Four Directions. “To us, there’s a lot of history behind the sight of a white man in a uniform. In South Dakota, the disparity between Native and non-Native incarceration rates is extreme. It’s like the Old South, except it’s happening in the 21st century. And don’t forget the Wounded Knee massacre, which happened near Pine Ridge Village.”
The problems at the polling place arose during the week of October 13, when $50,000 in donations to support GOTV from liberal blog Daily Kos landed on Sioux reservations. Turnout surged. The National Congress of American Indians and other groups also contributed. The total soon topped $100,000.
The nation’s eyes had shifted to South Dakota—and its Native voters, who make up some seven or eight percent of the state’s electorate, said Greg Lembrich, a New York City attorney who serves as Four Directions legal director. And they’re reliably Democratic. In 2012, 93 percent of Pine Ridge voters choose the Obama-Biden ticket. There are nearly 9,000 registered voters on Pine Ridge and a total of about 35,000 Native voters when the other eight reservations in the state are counted in. Getting those voters to the ballot box became a tantalizing goal.
After a kickoff rally in the state capitol, Pierre, on Native American Day (Columbus Day in many of the other 49 states), reservation GOTV operations throughout South Dakota gassed up and hit the road. Dustina Gill, of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, a Sioux tribe, drove a bus dubbed the War Pony to all nine Indian communities in the state to encourage voters to register and early vote.
On Pine Ridge, Semans hired drivers and set up a command center in a disused video store in Pine Ridge Village. Oglala Sioux tribal member Kevin Killer, the area’s representative to the state legislature, joined her there with a second GOTV group created through his nonpartisan PAC, NDN Election Efforts. The two operations had as many as 20 drivers turning up daily to give friends and neighbors a lift to the polling place.
A big bloc of voters typically sidelined by isolation and poverty was suddenly on the move.
Until then, no more than five voters a day had been turning up, according to election official Sue Ganje, who’s from nearby Fall River County. Counties run elections, but barebones Shannon County, the non-tribal entity that overlaps much of Pine Ridge, can’t afford to run its own. So, it contracts with Ganje and other officials from neighboring, mostly white, Fall River to handle voting.
On October 17, after several days of high voter turnout in Pine Ridge Village, Ganje requested that the county sheriff, Jim Daggett, visit the polling place. “I believe I just asked him to pop by periodically when he was in town, which I have always done in the past, so he just popped in, I believe,” she said in an interview the following Monday, October 20.
Was she surprised that Native people saw this as intimidating? In an interview on Pine Ridge a week later, Ganje responded, “I know that in the past, whenever the sheriff has come, I’ve heard this, in the past, that it was intimidating to voters. I don’t think he was doing anything other than popping in.”
When Ganje was asked if she thought Native people felt welcome in the Pine Ridge Village polling place, she said she “would always hope so.” She pointed out that she’d hired tribal members as election workers. “I don’t know what else I can do,” she said.
Ganje added that on one occasion, the sheriff was responding to a complaint of improper voter influence by GOTV workers. But Sheriff Daggett said that when he arrived, “everything was fine.” He explained, “The information was third-hand.”
Complaining of discrimination “under color of law,” Four Directions contacted state and federal authorities about the sheriff’s visits. Soon thereafter, U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Brendan Johnson said he was “closely following the matter in conjunction with the Department of Justice Voting Rights Section.”
The sheriff’s visits stopped. Turnout numbers rebounded. “We hit 81 today,” Donna Semans said on October 27.
Loren Cuny, an Oglala stuntman for television shows and movies, is one of Semans’s drivers. Part of his work over the past several days has been convincing fellow tribal members that casting a ballot is safe. He’s proud of his involvement and his vote. “Voting is something I do for my people,” he said.
The storm over the sheriff is not the first time Fall River County has been at loggerheads with Pine Ridge’s Native electorate. Elections on Pine Ridge were under special Department of Justice scrutiny until 2013, when the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision struck down the Voting Rights Act section that provided the mechanism for that. To get the early-voting office in Pine Ridge Village, tribal members had to fight Fall River County in federal court. (This year, a second lawsuit against Jackson County netted a similar polling place in Wanblee, in the reservation’s northwestern corner.)
To forestall additional problems, on October 31 the Justice Department placed two monitors in the Pine Ridge Village polling place. On Election Day, they’ll be joined by attorneys from a poll-watching team Lembrich has gathered. In all, he’ll station 40-some lawyers and law students from around the country on the state’s reservations.
Killer noted an interesting item on the ballot this year: a Native candidate for sheriff. “The election itself may provide a solution to the problems we’ve had this year,” he said.
This story was written with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.