When Paul Shone gave unregistered voters rides to a satellite election office on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and found his passengers wary that he might try to sway them to vote one way or another, he made one thing clear.
“I tell them, ‘I don’t care how you vote. Just vote,’” said Shone, a member of Four Directions, a nonprofit organization focused on tribal member voting rights.
With midterm elections slated for today and a highly contested Senate race in South Dakota that could play a role in which party holds the Senate majority, tribal leaders, nonprofit groups and campaign officials from both sides have pushed to see more Natives register to vote this year. Shone traveled from Boston to help register voters and support early voting.
“There’s a culmination of issues this year,” that have drawn Native American voters to the polls, said South Dakota Rep. Kevin Killer. “It’s unique. People have a chance to make history by voting.”
While a tight Senate race among Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland and independents Larry Pressler and Gordon Howie has attracted national attention, Killer says, locals have been persuaded this year to weigh in on a number of issues in the general election, including minimum wage, gambling and a controversial initiative to change the name of Shannon County to Oglala Lakota County.
A name change
The mid-term election season were especially contentious this year for election voting rights for several tribes across South Dakota, where tribal leaders argued that a lack of early voting and few or no satellite voting locations blocked Natives from voting.
Last year a group filed a federal civil lawsuit complaint with the Department of Justice. The result was an allotment of state money for early voting locations in multiple counties with reservations. But not all counties have opted to use the funds. Buffalo County, for example did not use the money this year.
When that happens, it’s a hardship for reservation voters, said Roberta Ecoffey, who works for the Lakota Vote office on Pine Ridge and spent months urging residents to register and then go to the polls to cast their vote.
“A lot of people don’t have transportation, and poverty is the main reason,” she said. “A lot don’t understand the process. Ten percent of the people didn’t know what the parties represented. We need to get out there and educate our people.”
Education was Killer’s priority when he reached out to Shannon County residents, often going door to door during the name change petition drive earlier this year to explain the history of their county’s eponym, former Dakota Territory Supreme Court Chief Justice Peter Shannon, who helped push through the Dawes Act to convince Native Americans to sell the remainder of their lands.
The name didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now, Killer said. The idea to change it was born after a national conversation was sparked by the name of the NFL team the Washington Redskins.
“It’s detrimental to youth growing up,” he said. “You begin to learn your history and the impact it had on your community. [Shannon] was against our values as Lakota people. That really resonated with me.”
Once people were engaged with signing the petition, Killer said, there was a better chance they would take advantage of early voting or head to the polls on Election Day.
Who could benefit
The name change is just one draw to help make this a prime year to make strides for voter equality for Natives, said Ecoffey, who helped organize more than a dozen drivers to make trips to and from homes and the office to help people register. Without the satellite office, Pine Ridge residents would have to go to Fall River, more than an hour’s drive, she said. And people in Wanblee? Two hours.
“We want them to know their vote counts,” she said, and as a result of registration efforts, “we have 800 new voters that have never voted.”
That number could benefit the Democrats this election, if history plays out the way it has, with Natives traditionally voting Democratic. Ecoffey remembers the 1996 elections, in which Natives were credited with pushing through Democratic candidate Tim Johnson after tribal leaders denounced Republican Larry Pressler. In 2002, Natives helped push Johnson through again, this time against Republican John Thune.
As past Democratic candidates did, Weiland campaigned on South Dakota reservations this year, touting an anti–Keystone XL pipeline platform that has resonated with Natives, Ecoffey said.
But whichever party benefits from a surge in voting on reservations, Shone said, all Natives will benefit.
“Turnout has increased so much that people throughout the state — leaders in Pierre — are realizing it,” he said. “It gives Native Americans more power, and that’s a really good thing.”
Killer agreed. The name change referendum was one good way, he said, to talk to people about the voting process.
“They do have a role, an impact on elections,” he said. “It was a positive thing to say, ‘Here’s how democracy works on the reservation.’”