Indian turnout in South Dakota shows dramatic gains

Even though reservation turnout trailed the state average, more than twice as many Indians in South Dakota voted in last week's primary election than in 2002, according to a new analysis.

Efforts by the Four Directions Committee, a non-profit based in Rapid City, contributed to a dramatic increase in tribal participation in the June 1 election. The organization sent teams to the two largest reservations -- Pine Ridge and Rosebud -- and worked to increase turnout among urban Indians.

The investment paid off well, based on a preliminary analysis of voter data. "The intensive field effort by the Four Directions team yielded a 2.5 to over a 3-fold increase in voter turnout," Bret Healy, the group's executive director, wrote last week.

In Shannon County, home to the Pine Ridge Reservation, turnout jumped 212 percent, from 682 voters in 2002 to 2,127 last week. In nearby Todd County on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, turnout increased by 149 percent, from 788 voters two years ago to 1,959 last Tuesday.

Even reservations where Four Directions had less of a presence showed gains. Turnout in Corson County, home to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, grew by 76 percent in the last two years.

On the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, turnout in Dewey County jumped 68 percent while in Ziebach County, it grew by 75 percent. Buffalo County, home of the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, saw a 36 percent increase.

Based on these counties alone -- other counties with significant Native populations weren't included in the analysis -- more than twice as many Indian voter participated last week than in 2002.

The increase benefited Democrat Stephanie Herseth, who won the special U.S. House election by just 2,981 votes. Indians in these and other counties voted overwhelmingly for Herseth over Larry Diedrich, her Republican rival.

"The Native voice was heard loud and clear," Herseth, 33, said on Friday after being sworn in. During her first speech on the House floor, she also offered a thanks to her Indian supporters.

"I will always remember why I am here," she said. "In the language of the Lakota people, pilamaya."

Despite the gains reported by Four Directions, turnout on the state's reservations fell far below the state average of 56 percent. At Pine Ridge, for example, only 30 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Turnout at Rosebud was 39 percent. Primary elections typically have a lower turnout than general elections.

This fall, Democrats and Republicans are looking to shore up support among Indian voters, who helped Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, win a narrow election over Republican John Thune, who will face Democrat Sen. Tom Daschle in November.

The state will also be a battleground for the presidential race between Republican George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Indians make up about 9 percent of the state's population. Bush took the state in 2000 in his race against former vice president Al Gore.

South Dakota Election Results:
Statewide | County Turnout | More Results