Native American voters gaining visibility - KOTA Territory News

Native American voters gaining visibility, political attention


Although they were given the right to vote in 1924, many Native Americans living on reservations in South Dakota weren't actually allowed to cast their ballots until the mid-70's.

Now, Native Americans account for almost 8% of the state's total voting population.

"This was really a frontier in terms of voting rights," said Greg Lembrich, State Legal Coordinator of the Native Vote Organization.
Organizers of the Native Vote movement have worked hard to overcome history and circumstance to increase Native voter turnout.
"Historically some of the barriers at the polling locations have been as bad as intentional harassment, intimidation. Most of the problems are in the nature of confusion and misunderstanding," said Lembrich.
"I realized some people in urban areas think it's as easy as walking down a couple blocks but some of our members have to drive 40 miles to a polling place," said Kevin Killer, South Dakota State Representative for District 27.
The initiative to educate, organize and transport voters to polling locations has so far produced results.
"Between 2000 and 2004, the number of voters in Pine Ridge, and Shannon county went up 122%. That's not a typo, that's people recognizing the power of their vote," said Lembrich.
In 2010, voting on state reservations increased 5%, and politicians have taken notice.
"We've had more candidates coming down to Pine Ridge, coming to our communities saying 'This is why I care about your community'," said Killer.
"That's so important. Funding for tribal colleges, roads, health care, these are things voting helps to bring. The more people get to the polls, the more their voice will be heard by public officials," said Lembrich.
With half the population of district 27 on Pine Ridge under the age of 18, education and economic development are big issues among voters.
"With some of the unemployment rates on the reservations, everyone wants change," said Killer.
"Those demographics can create a better destiny. If we can get them registered, excited, and to the polls we can see a massive increase in voting for the next couple of elections. It can lead to more power for the tribes in the political process," said Lembrich.

Native Vote representatives will be at 30 polling locations on reservations across South Dakota come election day.

They say total voter turnout on the reservation has varied from 30-40% in the last few elections.

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