- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

A surge in American Indian voter turnout helped make the difference in the Senate race in South Dakota and the governor's contest in Oklahoma.
It was a show of strength for a group that has rarely gone to the polls in large numbers and has not been an electoral force.
"We've got people who are registered to vote now who are participating in our democratic system who haven't before, and I think everyone would agree that's a good thing," said Russ Lehman, director of the First Americans Education Project, which has organized Indian voters behind causes in past elections.
"The key and the trick is to keep these people involved," Mr. Lehman said.
According to the 2000 census, Indians make up just 1.5 percent of the population, but they tend to be concentrated in particular areas, meaning in select races. That means their votes can decide close elections, especially because Indians have historically voted Democratic.
In South Dakota, incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson trailed Republican Rep. John Thune by about 700 votes the morning after the election. Mr. Johnson went ahead by 528 votes after ballots from the Pine Ridge Reservation were counted. A recount, however, is likely.
Ahead of Tuesday's vote, Democrats mindful of the Republican Party's advantage in the state in voter registration targeted Indian reservations for registration drives. More than 24,000 new voters signed up in South Dakota since the June primary, including 4,000 in counties that include or border Indian reservations.
The efforts were tainted when a woman hired by Democrats to help register Indian voters was fired and an FBI investigation was begun into accusations of forged absentee-ballot applications.
Still, turnout was up significantly statewide on Election Day, particularly on the reservations.
"I think it will be noted in years to come the influence that Indian voters had in this election," said Mr. Johnson's spokesman, Dan Pfeiffer.
In the race for Oklahoma governor, Democrat Brad Henry beat former Republican Rep. Steve Largent by fewer than 7,000 votes. Indian leaders say their efforts were key.
"Our people are now voting probably about 30 percent more than they have in previous government elections," said Greg Pyle, chief of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. Mr. Pyle said the Cherokee and Creek nations had significant voter turnout. A registration drive by the Cherokee Nation registered 9,000 new voters.
Gwen Nesbitt, spokeswoman for the Henry campaign, said Mr. Henry met with leaders of several Indian tribes and won the endorsement of Kelly Haney, a state senator and Seminole-Creek Indian who had run for governor and lost in the primary but had broad tribal support.
In a sprawling congressional district in northeastern Arizona, where one-fifth of the voting-age population is Indian, Republican Rick Renzi built an early lead over Democrat George Cordova. Then results came in from the counties that include the massive Navajo Nation reservation.
Mr. Cordova, who had spent months attending town meetings on the reservation, shaved more than 14,000 votes from Mr. Renzi's lead before losing by about 5,200 votes.
Northern Arizona University political science professor Fred Solop was on the Navajo reservation on Election Day and said everyone he spoke to supported Mr. Cordova.
"I think it did pay off for him," Mr. Solop said. "I think the Navajos who came out and voted, voted for Cordova."

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