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Local action leads to change in voting law

Recently I witnessed a trained Get Out The Vote volunteer registering voters at a small neighborhood powwow being held in the Washington Center gymnasium. It did my heart good to see her efforts and to know why she has been so successful.

Char Zephier, a Lakota woman who loves to dance at powwows and who works with me at Lutheran Social Service, attended a local voter registration event. She registered voters almost effortlessly, while dancing powwow steps in place, next to a cafeteria style table, quietly helping Natives and non-Natives fill out voter registration cards. I call it incredibly creative, culturally specific, multi-tasking.

Two years ago I was responsible for GOTV efforts at Community Action Duluth. Then, I wrote an op-ed piece in the News Tribune about what I saw happening and what others experienced at certain Duluth precincts in 2004.

What happened since then is nothing short of profound, and it helped to further my commitment to GOTV work. After the edition of the paper with my article in it hit the streets, I received a phone call from Beth Fraser in the Twin Cities. She was the public policy staff person for Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action, and she asked me to drive down and speak before the Minnesota Legislature.

At the Minnesota legislative hearing I simply read what I wrote for the paper. A very astute legislator listened and surmised a way to improve the situation. My concern was the volume of out-of-state challengers serving one party who, in my opinion, intimidated voters away from the polls. The representative proposed a law that requires all challengers be Minnesota residents. It has since gone into effect.

Last summer, Fraser again called and asked me to speak with representatives from Washington, D.C., who were looking for panelists. I served as a panelist before the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act, Midwest Regional Hearings.

I believe their work needs no explanation. The commissioners were observant, inquisitive and persistent in search of information to help them in their work. It was an honor to share with them everything I could recall about the precincts in Duluth: again, I simply read what I wrote for the News Tribune.

But mainly it all boils down to Zephier. Had I not worked on the 2004 election, and had a News Tribune ditor not encouraged me to write the op-ed piece, Fraser would not have called me. I would not have made trips to the Cities delivering my observances on challengers' behaviors and the effect it had on voters. And then I might never have encouraged Zephier to attend a training on registering voters.

I have become passionate about ensuring every citizen's right to vote. Zephier is a gifted social worker, a traditional Lakota woman, and great asset to GOTV in Duluth. Watching her in the gymnasium, gently dancing in place, reminded me of some dedicated runners, who run in place at stoplights, or while they make phone calls, anywhere and everywhere. We need to get out the vote anywhere and everywhere, and Zephier, by bringing her registration efforts into her traditional lifestyle, just guaranteed us the possibility of a few more voters.

Thank goodness for the powwow, thank goodness for those who keep them alive, and thank goodness Zephier is one of them, because she is keeping democracy that much closer to being the active reality we all want it to be, just by deftly dancing in place and registering voters at the same time.

Maggie Kazel of Duluth is program coordinator for Lutheran Social Service and a Get Out The Vote volunteer.

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