As COVID Cases Spike Across the Dakotas, Standing Rock Tribe's GOTV Effort Digs Deep
Tribe’s Voter Alliance Continues to Turn Out the Native Vote at Home and Nationwide Despite Pandemic, Helping Those on Lockdown and Nearing a Quarter Million Calls Made Throughout Dakotas and Battleground States
November 3, 2020
Fort Yates, N.D. — As the coronavirus pandemic rages across Midwestern states, including a world-worst spike in the Dakotas, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe hasn’t slowed down its effort to turn voters out both at home and in battleground states with large Native American populations.
The tribe, whose territory spans areas in both Dakotas, partnered a month ago with nonprofit advocacy organization the Lakota People’s Law Project to put canvassers on the street to help with remote voting and open a phone bank in Fort Yates, which houses the Standing Rock Sioux tribal headquarters in addition to the Sioux County Courthouse.
The courthouse was the only early voting location for all of Sioux County, home to much of Standing Rock and surrounding areas. Saturday, Oct. 31 was the only day it was open for early in-person voting, and fewer than 200 early voters turned up on Halloween to hand in their ballots.
Nicole Donaghy, executive director for the nonprofit organization North Dakota Native Vote, set up a warming station to help voters, and her team was there all day. She said turnout was likely slow because of the outbreak of new COVID-19 cases across the Dakotas. But, she expressed her gratitude for those who made the trip. “I feel inspired today by the people showing up today who want to come down and vote and be a part of the election process,” she said.
The outbreak has hit hard on some tribal nations, including Standing Rock, where one former tribal chairperson and several tribal elders have been recently hospitalized. A current district chairperson is also ill with the virus. Despite safety mandates within tribal borders and border checks at two tribal nations in South Dakota, reservations are feeling the effects of a lack of regulation from the state level, especially in the Dakotas.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem have so far been unwilling to enforce statewide mask mandates and other safety precautions widely adopted by other states despite record levels of new cases and a shortage of hospital beds and rapid testing in their territory.
“It’s just been devastating for our tribal infrastructure,” said Standing Rock member Honorata Defender, who currently splits time working as a first responder, a local newspaper reporter and a phone banker for the voting effort. “Several leaders in the small communities that make up the population of the reservation have contracted the virus, leaving many people here awash in a sea of uncertainty. It all makes the work we are doing to reach voters even more important.”
Standing Rock’s phone bank and field teams have been doing everything they can to maximize turnout. As of Sunday, tribal callers — who relocated from the call center to their homes more than a week ago out of an abundance of caution — had dialed more than 200,000 numbers and spoken with 9,232 potential voters in both Dakotas, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida. According to data provided by the Lakota People’s Law Project, many of those voters are Native American, and almost three quarters of them said they have already voted or promised to vote on Election Day.
In addition, field teams have switched their primary focus from getting mail-in ballots into the hands of healthy voters to specifically aiding those now quarantined to get their ballots counted. Leatrice Hendricks, who heads up the South Dakota field team for the Standing Rock-Lakota Law Voter Alliance, said her team has helped many families to vote who are now locked down due to exposure to the virus.
“I visited homes with one person quarantined, whole families with children, and elders who are really struggling,” said Hendricks. “I’m just grateful we can assist all these people to make sure they get their ballots in.”
Hendricks was spending Monday in McLaughlin, South Dakota, the Standing Rock Reservation’s second largest town. As of that day, she said there were 37 known cases of COVID-19 in a place where the total population is just over 600 people.
She said some homes and facilities have security guards assisting with lockdown, and they have helped her collect ballots and proper IDs for submittal to the County Clerk. Her process involves making sure that every document is cleaned and virus-free, and that there is no exposure between those who may be infected and those who are not.
“I want to emphasise that it’s so important that we all follow the safety guidelines,” Hendricks said. “Wearing masks, washing our hands, social distancing — I pray that we do everything we can to protect each other now.”
The Lakota People's Law Project operates under the 501(c)(3) Romero Institute, a nonprofit law and policy center.