South Dakota Native Election Victories—And What They Say About 2016

A version of this story first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in November 2014. 

South Dakota’s Native vote generated a lot of media attention in the run-up to Election 2014. Pundits wondered, would tribal voters there save the Senate for the Democrats…or not? In the end, a string of little-noted Native victories in local races and ballot questions there may turn out to be even more important—now and in 2016.
 
State legislator Kevin Killer, of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, ticked off the successes: On November 4, Jim Bradford, of Pine Ridge, was re-elected to the state Senate, where he will be joined by Troy Heinert, from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, who had been in the House. (Heinert is shown right at his day job as a rodeo pickup rider.) 

Shawn Bordeaux, also of Rosebud, will take over Heinert’s House seat. Meanwhile Rex Conroy, of Pine Ridge, earned the sheriff’s badge for newly renamed Oglala Lakota County with more than 80 percent of the vote; he beat the sheriff who had been stationed at the polls, with the knowledge that this would intimidate voters. More Oglalas were re-elected county commissioners.

Heinert pointed to Native-supported ballot measures that succeeded in South Dakota: “Voters renamed Shannon County as Oglala Lakota County, and an approved gaming measure will place certain games in tribal casinos. The minimum wage increase will help our people make a living wage for the hard work they are doing.”

“All politics is local,” said Killer, who held onto his House seat. “These results show voters what’s possible when they assert their rights as citizens.”

Voter turnout was key, said Heinert: “In my race, the Native vote was the deciding factor. I still count only four Native legislators in South Dakota: Kevin, Shawn, Jim and myself. However, more Native candidates got close. Maybe next time!”

South Dakota’s increased Native turnout ran counter to national and state trends. The Washington Post called Election 2014’s turnout “historically low” nationwide. In South Dakota, just four counties out of 66 saw increased voter participation over the 2010 midterms, according to Greg Lembrich, a New York attorney and legal director of voting-rights group Four Directions.

Tellingly, those were all reservation counties, overlapping Rosebud, Crow Creek, Standing Rock and Pine Ridge, said Lembrich. “Momentum is building toward the South Dakota Native vote being a strong, sustained voting bloc, not just a group that votes sporadically in the right year or race.” Native turnout was up in other states as well, including Arizona, Montana and Alaska.

About 2016, Heinert said, “We need to start now! We must keep our youth involved and get them registered. We must visit with our elders and make sure they have the required paperwork for voting. If we come together as a voting bloc and back candidates who share our views—not just those who ask for our vote—we can win even more races.”

c. Stephanie Woodard. Photograph courtesy Troy Heinert.