What is the Reservation Election Protection Project?
The goal of the project is to place lawyers and/or trained election observers in South Dakota Indian Reservation communities and polling places on Election Day to insure that all voters’ rights are protected. This election protection project is part of a larger ongoing effort undertaken by a group called Four Directions, for which I am serving as Legal Director on a pro bono basis. Four Directions is a non-profit, non-partisan Native American advocacy and voter rights group that is dedicated to empowering the Native American community by increasing its participation in the democratic process. Through voter registration, education, mobilization, and election protection, Four Directions is seeking to solidify Native Americans in South Dakota and beyond by making them a formidable electoral group whose voice is heard, whose needs and interests are addressed by elected officials, and who cannot be ignored or marginalized.
In the past, there have been many instances of voter harassment and intimidation in and around polling places, as well as many Native American voters who were legally entitled to vote, but were turned away at the polls or their ballots not counted. Election protection efforts in recent years have been very successful in enforcing voting rights and helping to make sure that all votes are counted.
Why is Native American Voting Important?
For those who are unfamiliar with Indian reservations, especially those in South Dakota, please allow me a brief description. Conditions on many reservations can only be described as deplorable, and are as bad or worse as in many parts of the third world. Four of the five poorest counties in America are Indian reservations in South Dakota. The level of poverty is devastating, with many families living in overcrowded, substandard housing that lacks basic necessities like heat and running water. Unemployment is widespread (sometimes reaching as high as 90% in the winter months). Health conditions are appalling. Nearly half of the population on some reservations has diabetes. Life expectancy is over 20 years less than the national average, and infant mortality is twice the national average. Alcoholism and hopelessness are rampant, and in recent years there has been an epidemic of teen suicides.
What is nearly as depressing as these conditions is most American’s complete lack of awareness of these terrible circumstances, and the extent to which these problems are ignored by the government. In sending Native Americans to live on remote, barren reservations, the government has succeeded in isolating them not only geographically, but also from the American consciousness and conscience.
One of the main reasons why the suffering on Indian reservations has rarely registered on the national radar is the lack of influence of Native Americans at the federal, state, and local levels. Voter participation on Indian reservations has historically been very low. Long denied the right to vote entirely, Native Americans were never considered a group with much political power, even in states and regions where they comprise a large segment of the population.
Empowerment Through Voting
This trend has begun to change in recent years as certain political campaigns and groups like Four Directions have recognized that increased Native American voter registration and participation in the democratic process can help to bring about positive change for the community and command attention to the group’s needs. Participation has been the key to representation.
The results of these efforts in South Dakota in recent years have been staggering. From the 2000 to the 2004 election, the number of voters on many reservations more than doubled! For example, voting in Shannon County (home of the Pine Ridge Reservation) increased 122%, and Todd County (Rosebud Reservation) saw a 139% increase in that period. These massive increases have not gone unnoticed by the media or the politicians, and the emergence of a new, powerful Native American voting bloc has helped bring about positive change for many reservation communities. Funding cuts for tribal colleges have been reversed, new health programs have been created, and projects to bring clean running water to communities have gained momentum over the past few years as voting has increased.
Help Needed for 2008
Four Directions hopes to help the South Dakota Native American community to continue its positive momentum in the 2008 election. The challenges faced this year, however, are difficult. In prior elections, many of the election protection efforts on the reservations have been undertaken by the political campaigns themselves. But, given the number of battleground states in the presidential and congressional elections this year, the major national and South Dakota campaigns plan to have very limited resources to devote to the Indian reservations this fall, and will likely have no significant Election Day operations on the reservations and/or targeted at Native Americans. This will make the work that Four Directions does in getting out and protecting the Native American vote all the more crucial, since we will probably be the first and last line of defense against voter suppression and/or intimidation. Please help us to make sure that every vote counts and no voter’s rights are imperiled.
What Will Volunteers Do?
Volunteers will need to arrive in South Dakota on the weekend before Election Day (preferably on Saturday November 1st) and then travel to their assigned Reservation. There you will meet with your fellow volunteers and community leaders, as well as spend some time getting familiar with the Reservation. On Election Day itself, volunteers will be working in polling places to make sure that all voters are able to cast their ballot and have it counted. Training materials will be provided in advance of the trip, and training sessions will also be available both before the trip and in South Dakota in the days leading up to the election.
Volunteers are responsible for their own travel costs and other expenses. As a non-profit group serving a disadvantaged population, Four Directions has very limited financial resources, so unfortunately is not able to subsidize costs for volunteers (although efforts will be made to provide food and discounted lodgings on the Reservations). To give a general idea of costs involved, round-trip airfare to Sioux Falls or Rapid City from major East Coast cities is approximately $350 (and should be comparable or less from other parts of the U.S.), rental car costs in South Dakota are generally about $50/day, and hotel accommodations on the reservations tend to run about $50/night per room. On most reservations in South Dakota, the Reservation hotel is also attached to the tribe’s casino, so anyone who enjoys gambling will be able to take advantage of those facilities.
If anyone has a preference to be placed on a particular Reservation, we will do our best to honor it. If there is interest, we can help to pair volunteers together in order to reduce costs. We will also do everything possible to make sure that volunteers who wish to be placed together are not separated. In addition, those of you who work for law firms or other organizations that support charitable work may want to inquire about whether pro bono credit and/or funds may be available to assist you in participating. My law firm has been extremely supportive of my involvement.
How to Get Involved
If you are interested in volunteering, have any questions, and/or would like to learn more about the project, please contact me. I can be reached by phone at (212) 858-1551 or by email at greg (dot) lembrich (at) pillsburylaw (dot) com. Also, please feel free to share this information with others who might be interested in this opportunity.