- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

RED SHIRT, S.D. Sitting on a folding chair in his front yard in the poorest county in the United States, Seth Eagle Bear could be the Democrats' secret weapon in this election year.
Mr. Eagle Bear, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, is a resident of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a territory the size of Connecticut where 63 percent of the inhabitants live below the poverty level.
"I'm a Democrat," said Mr. Eagle Bear, 30. "I registered [to vote] last summer. Some woman came around, and that's what she suggested."
Indians here typically vote Democrat. President Bush won 60 percent of the vote in South Dakota in 2000, but Democrat Al Gore carried the state's Indian reservations. And that trend could play a role in South Dakota's high-profile Senate race, viewed by both parties as pivotal to gaining control of the Senate.
Polls show a virtual tie between Republican Rep. John Thune and incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. But most polls don't survey accurately the state's Indian population.
"There are less phones on the reservations," said Laura Schoen, executive director of the state Republican Party. Sixty percent of homes in the Pine Ridge reservation lack telephones.
And with American Indians comprising 8.3 percent of the state's population about 63,000 residents some observers believe the tight contest could be won or lost on the reservations. South Dakota has several recent examples of razor-thin margins in federal elections, such as 1978, when Tom Daschle won his first race for Congress ,by 139 votes.
Thus it is no accident that the state Democratic Party has enlisted Brian Drapeaux, a tribal leader from the Lower Brule reservation and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Daschle, as its Native American Vote Chair. The state Republican Party is also working for the Indian vote but has no one person devoted to the job.
When Mr. Johnson defeated incumbent Republican Larry Pressler six years ago, some political strategists credited the reservation vote for his win.
Mr. Johnson is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and has opened re-election offices on each of the state's nine reservations. Tribal elders are said to be split in their support of Mr. Thune and Mr. Johnson.
Democrats are busy registering Indians to vote this year and working to ensure that they get to the polls on Election Day. Republicans say they, too, are making efforts on the reservations. But fears are being voiced privately in Republican circles that Democrats, through the use of absentee ballots on the reservations, could gain an unfair advantage.
A national group, Native Vote 2008, visited South Dakota this summer with its mobile voter registration camper to sign up new voters on the reservations. Its director, Russell LaFountain, said organizers are encouraging "strong absentee balloting."
The group's goal is to register 115,000 new voters in Indian country by 2008.
"We certainly are interested in getting out the vote," said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. "I don't know if we want to go into campaign strategy on the record."
Stephanie Herseth, the Democratic candidate for South Dakota's lone House seat, said Indians will play an important role in this year's races for the House and Senate.
"I know that the Democrats are probably spending more time [than Republicans] with some of these efforts on the reservations," Miss Herseth said, adding that Democrats also are paying attention to "the absentee ballot initiatives in terms of getting more people to utilize that procedure if it's difficult for them to get to the polls for one reason or another on Election Day."
"We've got a lot of tribal members that are very involved in the effort that are registering a lot of new voters, and they're very excited about this election cycle," she said.
Gov. William J. Janklow, a term-limited Republican who is running against Miss Herseth, spent seven years early in his career doing legal-aid work for American Indians. He said the Democrats' registration drive doesn't worry him.
"The more of them who vote, the better I'll do," Mr. Janklow said. "They should vote. They're Americans."
Mr. Eagle Bear, a father of four who is on disability, said his wife, Imagene, has received several mailings recently from the Democratic Party. He said he hasn't decided on the Senate race as he produced a glossy four-page brochure from the Thune campaign.
"Mostly all those higher people are Democrats," Mr. Eagle Bear said. "It's good the Democrats stood up to Bush this year. I have to learn more about Tim Johnson, since he's a Democrat."
His town is an isolated cluster of about two dozen ramshackle homes, some with rusted cars up on blocks in weed-choked lots. There is a K-8 school, but the nearest doctor is in Rapid City, about 40 miles distant.
Jobs are hard to come by on the reservation, Mr. Eagle Bear said. The unemployment rate is 86 percent. Some residents walk and hitch rides to Rapid City each day to clean out hotel rooms for $56 per day.
Life expectancy on the reservation is 45. Thirty-nine percent of the homes have no electricity.
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a voting rights lawsuit in federal court contending that Indians on two reservations, including Pine Ridge, have been discriminated against. The suit says South Dakota has implemented more than 600 voting statutes over the past 30 years without obtaining the necessary federal pre-clearance.
Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine has said that the state is in compliance with federal law and that her office recently filed voluminous documents with the Justice Department for review.

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