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Native Americans Work to Gain Political Clout - 2004-09-29

There's a new push to get American Indians to the polls in November. Native Vote 2004 is targeting some two million eligible Native Americans across a dozen states. American Indians are a small percentage of the total population, but in some places, their votes could determine the next mayor, or city councilor. In a tight election, Native Americans could even swing a state toward one party or the other, with the White House a potential prize.

Veronica Smith has become a bit of a pest to the residents of the Fond Du Lac Ojibway Reservation near Duluth, Minnesota. With a fist full of voter registration cards and a bucket of buttons and pens, she is working the crowd at a seminar for the tribe's Human Services Department. Just about any place that tribal members gather, Veronica Smith is there.

"At the Pow Wows, health fairs. We are planning on going into the casinos, into the employee's lounge, after we talk to the managers, to make sure that's okay. And even at events like this, with most of the people are registered and are voters, but even they know people who are not registered to vote," she says.

Ms. Smith is out get every eligible tribal member to the polls November 2. It's a daunting challenge. Historically, only one in five eligible Native Americans actually vote. They're the least represented minority group at the polls. American Indians weren't even allowed to vote in federal elections until 1924. Ms. Smith says many still aren't comfortable with the idea of casting a ballot.

"I think maybe it might be because they're not sure of what to do, and how to do it," she explains. "where they need to go to vote at. It's the process. I believe it's the process."

But there's also a sense of distance from the mainstream. Long isolated in rural America and on remote reservations, Native Americans might have little faith their vote will matter. And since they comprise less than two percent of the U.S. population, candidates for office have had little reason to court the Indian vote.

Native Vote 2004 is designed to provide a reason. While Veronica Smith talks with tribal members at the seminar, Naomi Bernard is helping at the voter registration table. This year, she says, she is optimistic.

"I think that 2004 is a definitive year," she notes. "And that it's time for, Indian people to take the initiative to realize that one vote can make a difference."

An election in South Dakota two years ago was an eye opener. Analysts credit U.S. Senator Tim Johnson's re-election to an American Indian get-out-the-vote campaign. Now, Ms. Bernard says, states with native populations are getting new attention.

"Minnesota is one of 12 states that are being watched closely by political observers as to the strength of the Indian vote," she adds. "And both major parties are actively courting the Indian vote."

In South Dakota, U.S. Senate candidates Tom Daschle and John Thune have each campaigned on the reservations. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was honored on a New Mexico reservation, and President George Bush recently hosted a group of American Indian leaders to the White House.

While American Indian numbers are small, they can make a formidable voting block, according to Melanie Benjamin, Chairwoman of Minnesota's Mille Lacs Band of Ojibway, Minnesota is considered one a dozen battleground states in the Presidential election.

"You look at the State of Minnesota, we have 33,000 American Indian eligible voters," she says. "If we got those voters out, and that's our goal to do that; we can determine how that election is decided."

That's the lesson from 2000, when in some states, the presidential race was decided by a margin of a few thousand or even just a few hundred votes.

Native Vote 2004 is billed as a non-partisan campaign. Volunteers have compiled candidate scorecards on issues important to Indians like housing, health care, and the environment.

Financial support for the effort comes from the tribes, many with new casino wealth. But that can be a double-edged sword, according to Judy Hanks, who is helping coordinate Minnesota's Native Vote 2004. She says casinos have brought economic power to the reservations, but they haven't yet earned Native Americans mainstream respect.

"In my personal opinion, that would be the greatest thing that we could achieve, is that out elected officials recognize our sovereign status, and respect it," she says. "And work with us on a government-to-government basis. If we had that dialogue going, there wouldn't be, in my opinion, many of the conflicts that do exist today."

The focus of Native Vote 2004 is getting voters to show up at the polls. Volunteers are also organizing a poll watch in key precincts, to ensure that Native Americans who do turn out are allowed to cast a ballot. In the past, some have been turned away for lack of proper identification. In coming years, project organizers say they will work to put more Native American candidates on the ballots.