Trahant: Changing the Political Map

Many Native communities increased voter turnout in the midterm election, affecting state and local races, defeating Montana's voter-restriction referendum and literally changing the political map. Exhibit A: Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota (formerly Shannon County). Mark Trahant reports on voting among Native Americans, the ethnic group with the largest proportion of its members living in rural America.

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There are two things you need to know about the Native American vote in 2014. First, the election is not over because ballots are still be counted in Alaska; and, second, elections in Indian Country are about the long-haul. One election is important. But not nearly as critical as the years and decades to come.

Let’s start in Alaska. 

“Three words swing the balance of this election cycle for Alaska: Rural, Early, and Absentee,” according to a joint news release from the First Alaskans Institute, Get Out The Native Vote, and the ANCSA Regional Association.

This week as many as 50,000 ballots will be counted, nearly one out of all five cast.

Currently Republican challenger Dan Sullivan leads by some 8,000 votes over incumbent Senator Mark Begich. And independents Bill Walker and Byron Mallott maintain a slim lead over incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.

But all that changes this week. And, as the joint release so nicely said: “The election isn’t over until ‘rural Alaska sings,’ a sentiment shared by an Alaska Native voter on Facebook yesterday. This simple truth is one that all Alaskans must remember, embrace as another unique and cool facet of Alaskan life, and celebrate as a part of our diverse and inclusive society, especially by those running for office.”

Across the country I have been impressed with those doing the hard work of registering and turning out Native voters. “What we know for sure is that this year’s effort resulted in more attention, excitement and turnout for rural, Alaska Native voters, in absentee-in-person voting as well as other voting methods. To what extent, we will not know until every single vote is counted,” said the news release.

And that’s it. The long haul. This election, in fact, any single election, is just one more step forward toward full participation and voice. Then what’s better than voice? When we sing.

Western Native Voice is one of those organizations that knows how to sing. “Organizers rose early to make calls reminding people to cast their vote. They offered citizens voting assistance and rides to the polls. They gave out information on Legislative Referendum 126, urging citizens to reject it since LR 126 would make it harder for Montanans to cast their votes. Most of all, organizers reminded their neighbors to vote and keep strong the long tradition of the Native American vote in this state,” according to Western Native Voice’s post-election news release.

“Throughout Montana, organizers used every tactic they could to rally voters to the polls. On the Fort Peck Indian reservation, organizer Lance Fourstar took to the airwaves on the local radio to get his fellow Assiniboine and Sioux to cast their votes. In Crow Agency, Verleen Holds hosted a "feed" for Native citizens after they cast their votes. Great Falls saw organizer Dale Fenner engaging Native American youth in the electoral process and working with high school students to get out the Native vote. In Blackfeet Country, organizer Alissa Snow, along with Western Native Voice Director Marci McLean, spent long hours making phone calls, knocking on doors, canvassing public spaces, and giving Pikuni voters rides to the polls.”

And the result?

Montana’s future voters: Two young advocates took time from the powwow to tell adults to vote because it matters.

“Turn-out in Montana Indian Country was brisk in many communities, flat in others, with overall turn-out up a solid 2% from the 2010 mid-term Election. On the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Reservations, turn-out was up 10 percentage points from 2010. On the Rocky Boy Reservation, turn-out almost doubled from 16% in 2010 to 30%. Over all, targeted Native American precincts showed a composite 40% turn-out rate with 10,827 votes cast out of a potential of 26,988 voters,” Western Native Voice said.

The big win in Montana — one of the best to report in this election — was the defeat of LR 126, the ballot initiative that would have ended same-day voter registration. “In some Native precincts, voters rejected LR 126 soundly with percentage of votes cast against the referendum as high as 80 percent.”

On top of that, Montana American Indians elected, or re-elected, six Native American state legislators to represent their communities in the state House and Senate where they will join two incumbent Native legislators.

Native voters were also singing in South Dakota. Greg Lembrich, legal director for Four Directions, said he was “proud of Four Directions, Native Vote, and all of the South Dakota tribes today. While statewide turnout in South Dakota plummeted by more than 9 points (46,000 fewer voters) versus the 2010 midterm election, tribal voters came out in force. In fact, of the state's 66 counties, only four saw an increase in turnout and they are all reservation counties. Shannon (Pine Ridge), Todd (Rosebud), Buffalo (Crow Creek), and Corson (Standing Rock) were the only counties in the state to cast more ballots this year than in 2010. Generational change comes slowly, but we are making progress.”

Oh, yeah, and Shannon County? That will be no more as voters easily approved changing the name to Oglala Lakota County. And, Lembrich said, the white sheriff who “was blocking doors to the polling in early voting was voted out. A tribal member ran for sheriff for the first time and got over 80 percent of the vote.”

Geesh. When you look across the country there was so many people doing good work. (Native vote has a good summary that also includes efforts in Wisconsin and Kansas.)

Another example: The Arizona First Congressional District was the number one House district for outside money (or dark money), a race that cost some $2.5 million. Most of that came from two groups — American Action Network and Young Guns Network — which combined to spend a reported $1.6 million, or significantly more than the $1.1 million reported spent by Republican challenger’s campaign. What’s cool here is that the money lost. The Navajo vote turned out and re-elected Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick.

Like I said, lots of people do lots of things to carry the election plan forward one more time. 

In Fort Hall, Idaho, Zelphia Towersap, 81 years old, was serving at the polls translating for people speaking Shoshone and Bannock. The numbers were small. But that matters not. Her daughter Yvette Towersap Tuell said, “a handful of tribal elders who appreciated having a tribal elder interpreter there to help them understand how to vote. There was one elder who could not see or hear good, so Mom had to help explain the ballot to her.  It was significant as it indicates how the older generation continues to vote in non-Indian elections, and overcoming native language challenges.” 

There are so many ways the people to sing.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

 

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