The prognosticators and the pollsters are undercounting Native American votes. In several races, the enthusiasm among Native voters is high and their votes will be crucial.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The election is nearly a week away and predictions are cheaper than a cup of bad coffee.
“We see good news for Republicans,” says The New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight. “Although not necessarily better news for them than is already implied by the polling.” So Democrats say they will do better than expected. And Republicans are all but promising they will run the next government. Of course every prediction is backed by the latest polls.
But here is one prediction you won’t read in the press: Not a single poll will capture what’s going on with Indian Country voters during this election cycle. The science of polling doesn’t work very well with small population groups living in rural or isolated locations.
That’s too bad because it would be interesting and useful to know what’s in the mind of American Indian and Alaska Native voters this cycle.
Consider the race for U.S. Senator from Alaska. Remember, incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost in the primary to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller. Murkowski is now running a write in campaign to regain her seat.
The only way that Lisa Murkowski returns to that office is if Alaska Native voters turn out in large numbers and write her name on the ballot.
The Alaska Federation of Natives last week endorsed Murkowski by acclamation at its annual convention here in Fairbanks. This was after the senator gave a keynote talk where she listed at length many of the accomplishments in Congress related to Alaska Native issues.
This represents one antidote to the so-called enthusiasm gap. If the AFN delegates can translate their organizational support into community support on Election Day, then Sen. Murkowski will be re-elected. (The Republican nominee, Joe Miller, has also tried to woo AFN support at least from individual members and the Democrat Scott McAdams promised to shake 5,000 hands at the convention in his bid for native votes.)
There is another reason for native voters to turn out in Alaska: Diane Benson, who is running for Lt. Governor.
Benson has a remarkable biography. She is an elected delegate to the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, former president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and, was one of the first women truck drivers on the Trans Alaska Pipeline. (If you’ve seen the television show “Ice Road Truckers,” then you know the kind of work Benson has done.)
“A vote for me is a vote for saying, ‘I’m mad as hell and I want some common sense restored,’” Benson said in a recent speech.
Benson is one of two Native American candidates for a state’s second-highest office; the other is Chris Deschene running for Secretary of State in Arizona. The Navajo Nation’s election is on the same day so there is the potential for a large turnout in the state race.
What’s particularly exciting about Alaska is how Native voters are a prime audience. First, hundreds of businesses welcomed AFN to their city with sidewalk signs or with brochures posted in their windows and much of the political advertising focused on attracting the AFN voter.
My favorite was a picture of a hand with the name of Lisa Murkowski written on it; an easy reminder that voters can take to the polls.
At AFN there were rides from the convention center to the Division of Elections Office to make early voting even easier.
Then, there’s good reason for that native outreach: “It’s estimated that Alaska Natives constitute 14 percent of the statewide adult population. If all Natives voted during a normal turnout year (in which 55 percent of non-Natives voted), approximately 25 percent of the electorate at the polls would be Native,” according to the Alaska Native Vote Web site. “This voting bloc would be more powerful than the Republican vote (24 percent), the Democratic vote (16 percent), and the non-partisan vote (14 percent) in Alaska.“
There are other locations in Indian Country that should get the same sort of attention as Alaska.
In South Dakota, for example, the Republicans have made it their mission to limit American Indian voting. The latest example is what the state Republican Party calls a “food for vote scheme.” A party press release says, “offering food or anything else of value for voting is against the law.”
I can’t tell you how much food I’ve eaten at voter events over the years – sponsored by both parties. This is a silly issue.
But I know the real fear: It’s fry bread power. A piece of bread in the hands of a voter could make a real difference.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s new book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.