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DNC drops $70k to help state Democrats register Native American voters

Kent Osborne

As voter registration numbers decline in native communities, the national Democratic Party is investing $70,000 into South Dakota to increase participation.

But some say the amount may not be enough to make a huge difference.

The $70,000 to the state Democratic party is part of a $2 million dollar investment by the DNC into Republican-leaning states this election cycle.

“Certainly, this being the first of its kind where we have these targeted investments by the DNC in a presidential election year for noncompetitive states, this is huge," said Dan Ahlers, executive director for the South Dakota Democratic Party. "You just need to look and see what the surrounding states got—South Dakota did very, very well.”

Ahlers said more Native voters and candidates are important given the current state of state-tribal relations, which are strained.

Between milage costs to cover distances between rural communities, advertisements and an individual to run the program, the state party may have to invest some of its own money. That’s because of the large cost associated with voter registration efforts.

“I applaud the DNC. I’m hoping the RNC will do the same thing," said OJ Semans, the co-executive director of Four Directions—a voting right and engagement group located in South Dakota. It conducts voter registration drives on Native American reservations across the country.

“Because it’s really important for Natives to become involved in the electoral process," Semans said. "When there’s outreach from the parties to do so, it’s always a good sign but it always falls short of what they need to do.”

Four Directions got its start in 2002 and has played a big role in US Senate races in South Dakota, helping Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson edge out Republican challenger John Thune by 500 votes. Get out the vote efforts in South Dakota reservations cost around $500,000 that year. Two years later, during the Thune-Daschle Senate race, Semans said get out the vote efforts cost closer to $1 million.

Semans said there’s lessons to be learned from those races from 20 years ago.

“You look at this nationally, that same thing that happened in 2002 is on the boards now,” Semans said.

He said the native voting population in key battle ground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada will play a crucial role in the 2024 election.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.