Election Observers visit Dewey County polls on Cheyenne River
by Tasiyagnunpa Livermont
In 2002, 524 votes made the difference between Tim Johnson winning the senate seat against John Thune.
Thune was in the lead as polls closed East River, but as the polls closed in counties overlapping with tribal reservations West River, the outlook changed.
By the end of the night, Johnson was the winner. Though the win is still disputed by some, few would dispute that the swing vote was the tribal vote.
According to Greg Lembrich, senior associate with the New York-based law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and pro-bono legal director of the non-partisan voter advocacy non-profit Four Directions, the 2002 South Dakota senate race was the first coordinated effort among campaigns, tribal officials and volunteers to get more tribal members on reservations to the polls.
“The Lakota vote had decided the election,” said Lembrich, who took time to talk to the West River Eagle by phone on Election Day from the road near Pine Ridge.
Since that time, tribal officials and volunteers decided not to rely on campaign staff for the work of turning out native voters and instead form their own group. The main group in South Dakota is called Four Directions and works on voter rights issues, including gaining access to absentee voting and other voter issues facing tribal communities.
The National Congress of American Indians formed an umbrella group, Native Vote, which supports other efforts in states and serves to target key states in which voting access by tribal members has faced barriers. South Dakota is one of those targeted states.
“Every election, they keep expanding their target states,” said Lembrich.
On the eve of Election Day, Lembrich met in Eagle Butte with other attorneys from the same firm whom he had recruited to be part of Native Vote’s election observers. Election observers are non-partisan volunteers taking it upon themselves to be sure that no voters are disenfranchised from the election process.
The attorneys with Native Voice have different legal focuses, but all came to work with local organizers to assist voters. Michelle Fredericks DuBray, a resident of Dewey County and Cheyenne River and enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation at Ft. Berthold, ND, works with the group as a local coordinator. On the day before the election, DuBray welcomed Native Voice election observers and showed them around Eagle Butte with stops at the CRST Tribal Chairman’s office and Winona Charger’s office where the in-person absentee voting satellite office for the state/federal election was held.
The in-person absentee voting satellite station was a group effort by Dewey County officials, tribal officials and local residents DuBray and Julie Garreau and supported by both Four Directions and Native Vote.
DuBray and four attorneys from New York City and Washington, D.C. sat down with the West River Eagle the day before the election to discuss the role of election observers and exactly why these lawyers paid their own way to come to our local polls.
One of the attorneys visiting Dewey County this election is Liz Lord. Lord was a United States diplomat to Geneva, Switzerland working with countries in the United Nations before rejoining Pillsbury.
“There I came to appreciate how much the rest of the world admires our election process and how much they sort of hold us up high as a model of free and broad-based election participation,” said Lord. “And I have former colleagues and former connections who have emailed me and talked to me about the election and who are all watching it. So to my mind it was important to support a group in our country that is often sort of underserved and underrepresented and see how the election process works in a certain sector of our country that maybe doesn’t always get the resources and support it needs.”
Being attorneys is a key component of what Native Voice tries to bring to tribal communities—law expertise. One of the attorneys that visited Cheyenne River on Election Day is Canadian and First Nations. Aubrey Charette is from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Reserve in Quebec, Canada.
So what can attorneys from New York or DC bring to South Dakota?
“Being lawyers and having that familiarity with the law and the familiarity to say this is what it is and this person should be allowed to vote,” said Charette.
The other attorneys with Native Voice agree.
“I feel like my past experience give me the ability and I guess confidence to just step in where I think something is not quite right and speak up and had I not been trained as a lawyer and doing that for clients on a regular basis, I might not feel comortable doing that,” said Tim Russo, a senior associate at Pillsbury.