MAHNOMEN, Minn. — An organization on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota is busing people throughout nearby counties to the polls this election season, using a “Rez Uber” — a donated bus.
The idea sprouted recently, said one of the Honor the Earth organizers, Sarah LittleRedfeather Kalmanson, who noticed quite a difference between the voting experience she had living in a larger city in Wisconsin and the voting options she has now that she lives on the White Earth Reservation.
“We found out that local precincts were not going to be open,” said Kalmanson.
On one of the first trips the Rez Uber took to the Becker County Courthouse, voters discovered a posted notice at the Becker County Auditor-Treasurer’s office stating that a number of townships, including Atlanta, Callaway, Eagle View, Evergreen, Forest, Hamden, Riceville, Round Lake, Spring Creek, Walworth, and White Earth “have elected to vote by mail ballot procedure in statewide elections.” Cities Callaway and Ogema are also included on the mail ballot-only list.
Pine Point has a ballot station, but Kalmanson was quick to note that it’s three miles out of town, a distance that “is pretty harsh” for people without vehicles.
“You take for granted when you live in the cities that you can go to your local schools and vote,” said Kalmanson. “When you’re on the reservation, there’s a different language. There’s a whole different life. ... They’re also isolated. I think we need to, as a society, understand that.”
Many people living on the White Earth Reservation are living in poverty. Many don’t have access to reliable transportation or internet. Many more are homeless. All of those factors make it that much more difficult for people to know how or where to register to vote. Then acquiring an absentee ballot or getting to the polls is a whole other story.
“For many, that’s 30 miles one way to get to the Becker County Courthouse,” said Kalmanson.
Honor the Earth is hoping to begin bridging that gap with the Rez Uber. Kalmanson and a few others have been getting the word out about the transportation option by putting up posters in gas stations and on the sides of roads. They have also been simply driving around each community asking people if they would like a ride to the polls.
“It’s all grassroots,” she said. “It’s all we’ve got.”
The group has been using social media, and Kalmanson set up a website to get the word out (powwowthevotemn.org), but she recognizes that it’s going to take a while to get the idea established in communities that are largely disconnected.
“We haven’t taken a ton of voters. That’s just the truth,” she said.
But Honor the Earth is not giving up. They will transport voters all the way up to Election Day on Nov. 6. They will stopped in different villages each day at nursing homes, community centers and residences to find voters who want to ride the Rez Uber — and they’re not hard to miss.
The bus is covered in a “Stop Line 3” mural, as it was donated by a business man in California to be used for Line 3 protesters.
Despite the artwork emblazoned on the side of the bus, Kalmanson said the Rez Uber is non-partisan. It’s all about getting the people to the polls.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re on the reservation or not. We will take you if you need a ride,” said Kalmanson. “Even non-native (people), we will take you too. ... It’s for everybody.”
Kalmanson said folks can bring their children along. She packs snacks for the 60-mile round-trip journey, and they try to have fun. Whatever they can do to make the voting process easier for people.
“Get out and vote,” she urged. “Your voice matters. Do what you've got to do. We’re here for you.”
People can also call or text 218-616-0984 for a ride to the polls on the Rez Uber.