Successful Voter Registration Drive at Red Lake
October 26, 2020
It was Friday October 9, 2020. I came to Red Lake Nation to witness the impressive Voter Registration Drive going on, a drive that registered roughly 5,500 new Red Lake voters. Yes, you read that right, 5,500 first time Red Lake voters.
Success was due to the efforts of scores of Red Lake member canvassers...in a friendly competition...and over ten days. Another (roughly) 2,500 new voter registrations were filed at counties serving Leech Lake and White Earth. These were enrolled canvassers visiting their relatives, friends and fellow band members. This is what they do anyway. No different.
"What an 'incentive' idea, I'm more than impressed," said a friend and ally of Indian Country. "It definitely can make a difference! It's much better than spending time with media. This approach benefits the young worker and involves them in elections, making changes that will make them a more aware citizen. Gives them pride in their work and their tribe."
How It Began
Flyers began circulating on the Rez and on social media with the message of hiring canvassers immediately. It would be a bipartisan project to register voters, that is Red Lake members and their relatives.
Many gathered at Red Lake Center on Sunday October 4, 2020 to get set up. It was same day training. It was explained that there was an expectation to register two voters per hour. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was provided.
Most canvassers drove, but some traveled by foot or bicycle. After leaving the Red Lake center canvassers would visit all corners of the reservation, traveling to Bemidji, Cass Lake, Thief River and other area concentrations of Red Lake members, their relatives.
Some days, 40 or 50 canvassers spread out through many counties, former Indigenous lands still occupied by their relatives. According to Drive Supervisor Doreen Wells, the largest group of new registrations were from 18 to 45. "They've just had it. They're motivated," she said.
(The numbers of new registrants give further evidence that Indigenous Americans have been notoriously undercounted in census data over several decades, just sayin'.)
The Center is pumped. Piles of voter registration forms and yard signs and laughter were everywhere. One could not miss the excitement. "There is kind of a friendly competition." said Drive Supervisor Tori Lussier. Indeed, I could feel the energy as steady stream of mostly young people popped in and out, some starting the day's shift, others ending, while still others picked up more registration forms.
Now, How to Get Out the Vote and get the People to the Polls
Tuesday, October 13th was the last day to preregister for voters in order to give auditors time to enter new voters into the system. It was then three weeks before Election Day on Tuesday, November 3. The new voter registrations were turned over immediately to their respective county auditors, the time of preregistration having ended. (REMEMBER: Anyone however can register and vote at the same time at all County Auditor Offices)
On Thursday, October 22, the first bus left Red Lake Nation to vote in person at the Beltrami County Auditor's Office. It was kind of a practice run for voters, busses, organizers and county workers.
Given a hand by Jerry Loud and Oshkiimajitahdah (New Beginnings), 12 Red Lakers, ages 25 to 72 boarded a 24-passenger bus and headed to Bemijigamaag, a foreign country to many. All, yes, all 12 Red Lakers were voting for the very first time in a non-tribal election.
Everything went well, though it took a bit longer than expected. But all were patient, voters and workers alike. They kinda know each other, relatives really. They were all playing their roles in a sacred rite as an American, the right, some say obligation, to vote.
One woman was overheard talking to her son telling him he was along for more than just the ride. "Practice this," she said, "because in 12 years, this will be your responsibility."
Beginning Monday, October 26, 75 drivers will fan out across the lands of Red Lake Nation, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and White Earth Nation. They will actually knock on doors and ask people if they need a ride to the polls. Drivers hope to bus 20 to 50 voters per day to Auditors offices right up to election day. America's Indigenous Peoples will be heard in 2020.
The leadership team of the voter registration drive are Bret Healy, Consultant to Four Directions; Mike Simkins, Coordinator (RL, LL, WE); and Red Lake Supervisors Tori Lussier and Doreen Wells, and the help of son John.
Background: Voter Suppression of Indigenous American Peoples
Four Directions: advancing equality at the ballot box across Indian Country
Native Voters Could Swing the 2020 Election-If They're Able to Vote
In Minnesota, Four Directions engaged Tribal leaders and local governments across three Indian reservations in six counties to open satellite voting offices for inperson absentee voting.
With the Four Directions approach, Native voters can swing elections, accumulate power, and take their rightful place in the political landscape, thus protecting our treaties, Tribal sovereignty, and way of life.
Times have changed since we went to war to fight for our way of life, our treaties, and our Tribal sovereignty. We now protect our communities and our rights by going to the polls to vote.
Four Directions has leveraged strong relationships with Tribes in Nevada, Arizona, Montana, North Carolina, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota to make a critical difference in close federal elections. Four Directions has also partnered with preeminent organizations, including the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, and the National Congress of American Indians, to extend equal access to the ballot box across Indian Country.
We give special recognition to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which has consistently supported the advancement of Native voting rights for all Tribes. If not for the participation of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, none of this would have happened.
Troubles with Voting in other parts of Indian country outside of Minnesota
Navajo mail-in bal¬lots to be counted.
Hurdles to Native voting
Since being granted U.S. citizenship and suffrage in 1924, Native people have brought scores of lawsuits to exercise their voting rights. Some Native voters still face harassment, distant and hard-to-access precinct offices, reduced or unpredictable voting times, and the refusal of poll workers to accept the kinds of personal identifica¬ion they ordinarily carry.
The pandemic adds new barriers: This year, because of Covid-19, many voters will rely on mailin ballots to cast their votes. But many tribal citizens do not have home mail delivery but rely on P.O. boxes or general delivery in distant post offices.
The power of Native voters to decide the 2020 presidential election cannot be overstated, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D Kan.), a Ho-Chunk Nation citizen, told the Democratic Party in August. States with sizable Indigenous populations - Arizona, Minnesota and others - are in play, Davids said. Even Wisconsin's small Native voting-age population could impact the race for the White House, according to Davids. President Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by just 0.77%, while Indigenous voters make up about 1.5% of the state's electorate, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
A drop in Native voter turnout could have consequences across the country. Native Americans are more involved and influential in U.S. elections than is commonly understood-fielding scores of candidates for state and national office, running presidential candidate forums and managing energetic get-out-the-vote campaigns.
With around 3.7 million Native people of voting age concentrated in Western states - and this voting-age population accounting for up to 11% of the electorate in New Mexico, 12% in Oklahoma and 17% in Alaska, as tabulated by NCAI - Native voters can dramatically shape election results. Tribal backing has helped many candidates, among them Lt. Gov Peggy Flanagan (D Minn.), Sen. Jon Tester (D Mont.), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D Wash.), former Sen. Mark Begich (D Alaska), former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D N.D.), former Sen. Tim Johnson (D S.D.) and former Sen. Tom Daschle (D S.D.).
Saving the "good place"
According to Reiter, many Native voters are more driven by issues than candidates and parties. They are always interested in health and education issues, he says, and have grave concerns about challenges to tribal sovereignty and harm to land, water and sacred places. As in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), Native people are often the spearpoint in environmental clashes with outcomes that affect millions of people. (Boundary Waters Canoe Area)
In addition to pushing for pipelines, such as DAPL and Keystone XL, to be built through or near Native homelands, the Trump administration has diminished federal protection for vast areas of natural beauty and tribal cultural meaning, including Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
People and other tribal citizens will persist in fighting to protect the earth. "As long as this earth is here, as long as we're here, we'll never give up," he says. To vote in a way that supports that effort, "You have to do your homework." Though Democrats have historically been cooperative about environmental issues, so have some Republicans.
His people have survived other crises, even other pandemics, even genocide. "That is a hell-u-va strength," he says. "We got this."