January 24, 2017

Groups mobilize to register Native voters

OKMULGEE, Okla. – Voting advocates are reaching across Indian Country where they have never stretched before.  Since early 2012, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) voting advocacy campaign, Native Vote 2012 and the new campaign, “Every Native Vote Counts,” has unleashed an army of voting advocates on the march to turn out the largest number of Indian voters in history.

In every region of Indian Country, organizers are knocking on doors, setting up chairs for rallies, driving elders to registration sites or explaining the issues to those who may not be politically savvy.  They are also transporting elders by the vanload in the rural portions of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to registration sites.  Transportation to the polls on Election Day is also in their plans, said voting advocate and former Muscogee (Creek) Nation councilperson Cherrah Ridge.

“Our biggest push is to get people to vote, not just to register,” she said. “That’s where it really counts.”

Everywhere is suddenly the place to be to sign up new voters. Audra Antone of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona has recounted her must-vote speech at basketball games, powwows and state fairs. Any gathering is fair game and she has her pitch pretty well memorized, she said.

“I talk to anyone, anywhere,” Antone said. “A lot of Indians don’t understand the issues because we go by our own sovereignty.”

So, Antone painstakingly explains looming changes in Arizona’s education and health care where Natives may be forced to compromise if their voices are not heard, she said. Every day until the Oct. 9 voter registration cutoff in Arizona, it’s an extra order of outreach and hold the apathy, she said.

“We (Indians) are invisible in some of these issues. Voting is the easiest thing we can do make our voices heard in Indian Country,” Antone said.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, Alfred Walking Bull and eight other volunteers are attempting to cover the Rosebud Sioux Reservation and its proximity to register Indians to vote. With their reservation near Todd County, South Dakota, their obstacles unexpectedly grew. Overall voting there has declined by some 1,000 voters since the last election, he said.

“We do a lot of rural outreach,” Walking Bull said. “We had a booth at Rosebud fair and registered 25 voters in one day.”

The Rosebud Sioux contingency hits the usual spots like the local Indian clinic, but they also think outside of the box to find new voters. For instance, Walking Bull recently visited the nearby St. Francis Indian School. Inside the senior classrooms, they came up with a hidden cache of would-be voters—students who turned 18 or were about to become of age. They came away with new registers at St. Francis.

Finding the potential voter is only part of the challenge. Rising above voter apathy in communities of color is a big challenge, experts said. Mark Morial, president of the National Urban League (NAL) in Washington, D.C., said minorities often don’t see the value of voting even after they are registered.

“One reason is that candidates who run do not aggressively seek minority votes,” Morial said. “Plus, politicians may have a habit of reneging on campaign promises in previous elections.”

Morial sees a powerful voting bloc in future elections if minorities unite. As its own group, statistics show Indian voters made a respectable showing in 2008. According to the U.S. Census current population survey, among Alaska Natives and Indians who registered; some 78 percent turned out to vote.

Wind River Reservation citizen, Roy Brown, president of the University of Oklahoma’s Law School Indian society, said he finds Indians in a college town live and interact in pockets.  His goal is to find those pockets.

“It’s about getting Indians to register to vote, no matter where they are and there’s still not enough people interested in the political process,” he said.

Scouting for potential new voters in his corner of Indian Country motivates Walking Bull, who believes that the Native voting fields are ripe for harvest even as the registration deadline for the presidential election approaches. In South Dakota, voter registration ends on Oct. 22.

”“I tell them, ‘We are all Indian nations, we don’t care who you vote for, just get out there and vote,’” Walking Bull said.

In Oklahoma, the last day to register to vote is Oct. 12 and Nov. 6 is the presidential election. Voters can also register online. Turbo Vote at http://nativevote.turbovote.org will mail voter registration materials to homes with a pre-stamped envelope, NCAI officials said.

Brittney Williams and her father, Joe Williams, register voters during National Voters Registration Day, Sept. 25, at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Mound Building in Okmulgee, Okla.