Native Americans test voting power in S.D.

Registration drive by Democratic Party could tip key races

October 31, 2002|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Tom Poor Bear is a 46-year-old Oglala Sioux who has never cast a ballot in a state or national election. But that should change Tuesday when he says he intends to vote the straight Democratic ticket.

"I found out our vote is a powerful weapon, so I registered and now I hope we sweep this election," he said.

Poor Bear is among 24,000 newly registered voters in this sparsely populated state - about 4,000 of them Native Americans signed up by the Democrats in the hope they will tip the scales for that party's candidates, especially Sen. Tim Johnson.

The first-term incumbent is battling Republican challenger U.S. Rep. John Thune in a race that could decide control of the Senate.

So high are the stakes that President Bush, who will make his third trip to South Dakota to campaign for Thune today in Aberdeen, has turned the race into a sort of referendum on his presidency. But the votes of Poor Bear and other newly politicized Indians could be decisive in a state with fewer than a half-million registered voters.

In recent days, the Democrats' intensive voter registration drive on the state's nine Indian reservations has been stung by allegations of fraud, and some political observers wonder whether the controversy might deter new voters from turning out.

"If things get a little questionable, they [Indians] withdraw," Webster Two Hawk, the state commissioner of tribal government relations, told the Associated Press. "And I hope they don't do that. I hope they just go right on ahead and vote their conscience."

Allegations of fraud

Republican Attorney General Mark Barnett says investigators have found 15 absentee ballot applications with forged signatures, all linked to Becky Red Earth-Villeda, a contract worker for the state Democratic Party who has since been fired. Barnett said the woman, who also goes by the Sioux name of Maka Duta, might have been involved with as many as 1,750 absentee ballots.

In another case, Lyle Nichols, a Rapid City man who worked for a Native American group with no ties to the Democratic Party, was accused of taking names from the phone book and forging five signatures on registration cards.

Russell Means, a longtime Indian activist who splits his time between the Pine Ridge reservation and a home in New Mexico, called allegations of registration fraud "dirty, racist politics."

"The Republicans want to do the same thing they did in Florida - disenfranchise the disenfranchised," said Means, referring to the 2000 presidential race that elected Bush.

Means, who ran as a Libertarian candidate for the U.S. presidency in 1988, was equally scornful of the Democrats, whom he accused of seeking Indian votes and providing little in return: "The attention they pay to us during an election year is highly degrading and insulting."

In 1996, Indian voters helped Johnson - a protege of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the state's senior senator - win a narrow, 8,500-vote victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Larry Pressler. Four years later, Bush won 60 percent of the statewide vote but trailed Al Gore in reservation voting.

Alfred Bone Shirt, a full-blooded Sicangu Sioux and longtime activist from the Rosebud Reservation, offered his view on why Indians, who account for 8.3 percent of the state's population, tend to vote for Democrats.

"Out in mainstream America, being a Republican might be different, but here on the homelands of South Dakota, it's the same as being a racist," he said. "The Republicans are these farmers and ranchers who are out after more Indian land."

Many Indian first-time voters will be motivated by personal and pocketbook issues.

Poor Bear turned to the ballot box in part because of his frustration with authorities who have failed to make arrests in the killings of his half-brother and cousin. They were killed in a village near the reservation where the only businesses are beer-only stores catering to Indians; they sell more than 4 million cans a year.

Alcohol is a long-term problem on the reservations, as is pervasive poverty. Two of the 10 poorest counties in the United States cover South Dakota Indian reservations, and the most poverty-stricken of all, with a median family income of just $15,531, is Buffalo County, home to the Crow Creek reservation.

Allegations of bias

Indians here say they suffer discrimination comparable to that faced by Southern blacks during the civil rights era.

South Dakota is one of 16 states that must comply with the Voting Rights Act, a law that protects minorities. It requires South Dakota to get federal pre-clearance for voting laws and procedures enacted after Nov. 1, 1972, that affect voters in Todd and Shannon counties, where the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations are.

But the law has been largely ignored for 30 years, according to a suit filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union, which traced the state's defiance to a 1977 opinion by its then-attorney general, Republican William J. Janklow, now the outgoing four-term governor.

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