Seven election lessons from Indian Country

Rep.-elect Sharice Davids on Election Night. (Photo by Rhonda LeValdo)

At the ballot box this really was the Year of Native Women #SheRepresents

So much history was made this Election Day and it really was the year of the Native woman.

The first two Native American women in Congress, Representatives-elect Deb Haaland, New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, Kansas. Haaland is Laguna Pueblo and Davids is Ho Chunk and both are Democrats. The first Native woman elected lieutenant governor of a state, Peggy Flanagan of Minnesota. She is White Earth Nation and on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party ticket.

Arizona tripled the number of Native representation in its state Senate. Senators Jamescita Peshlakai, Navajo; Victoria Steele, Seneca; and Mary Ann Gonzales, Pascua Yaqui, and enough members to caucus. All three are Democrats.

here were at least 28 Native women elected to offices ranging from state legislature to Congress, nearly half of the 58 seats won by tribal citizens.

But the historic nature of last week is not just about gender.

Much has been written, for example, about the first Native women in Congress. But Tuesday also elected the first Native millennial to Congress (Davids). This is important because it shows the next generation (the one we always talk about) that its leadership time begins now.

Montana still has parity in the legislature -- and a powerful legislative voting bloc. There are nine Native Americans in the legislature. To put that number in perspective: Native Americans make up seven percent of the Montana Legislature and the state is just under seven percent in terms of Native population.

California has elected its first ever Native American member to its legislature, Rep.-elect James Ramos, San Manuel. Ramos will represent his tribal community -- and San Bernardino -- in the legislature.

And that too is interesting. More Native Americans won office representing urban communities in the legislature this time around, such as Rep.-elect Jade Bahr, Northern Cheyenne, in Billings, Montana; Rep-elect Ruth Buffalo, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, in Fargo, North Dakota; and Ajay Pittman, Seminole, in Oklahoma City.

Most American Indians voted for Democrats. At least 38 Native Democrats were elected compared to seven Republicans. This matches a pre-election poll by Latino Decisions that polled Native American voters (really). The poll showed that Native American voters favored Democrats by a 61 percent to 33 percent margin. The poll also found that most Native American voters said they would vote for candidates that supported the Native American community over Democrats or Republicans. Independent and indigenous.

Among the Republicans there were some interesting victories, such as Kevin Stitt, a Cherokee citizen, and the first Native American elected to lead Oklahoma. And Tamara St. John, Sisseton Wahpeton, who won a seat in the South Dakota legislature.

Let’s pull back and look at the first draft of a few lessons from the 2018 election.

Washington state Rep.-elect Debra Lekanoff. (Facebook photo)

One: The power of networks.

The year of the Native woman was all about networks. Idaho’s Democratic nominee for governor, Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, campaigned with Deb Haaland in New Mexico. Haaland campaigned in Kansas. Haaland produced video support ads for Rep.-elect Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit, in Washington state. (Previous story. Native women candidates: It’s our time, together.) Bethany Yellowtail designed T-shirts that capture that idea (and this moment). And she quickly sold out -- so these are now collector items.

But this network now becomes an important mechanism for governing. Ideas can get traded across state lines. There will be sharing of knowledge ranging from how to get elected (for future candidates) to how to make a bill become law.

Indeed, already Rep-elect Haaland and other new members of legislatures have said they want investigations and a resolution on missing and murdered Native women. Others have talked about expanding health care services, including Medicaid. And, perhaps, most important, many of talked about protecting the right of Native Americans to vote. The timing of that last promise is critical right now because the once a decade census will begin soon and with it the next round of apportionment, drawing the very lines that determine representation.

Two: Young people do vote.

On Election Day it was cold and snowing in Belcourt, North Dakota. Yet a large group of students -- organized by students -- marched from the tribal college to the polls, carrying signs about the power of Native Vote.

Across the country there were all sorts of activities that did just that, reminded young people to vote, where to vote, and helped them make sure to cast a ballot. The result was improved turnout. There still is work to do. The Latino Decision poll showed “did vote, will vote” category for Native youth at a rate lower than the total population … but not by much about four points. And two other data points were fascinating. A quarter of the youth surveyed said they volunteered either for a candidate or to bring out other voters and 35 percent said they attended a protest or a demonstration. Civic engagement.

Because the turnout numbers were high, across the board, youth did vote. It was the highest turnout of any midterm election since 1966. According to an estimate from the Election Project more than 110 million people voted for Congress.

According to Rep.-elect Perri Pourier in South Dakota, “turnout in Oglala Lakota County was higher than the 2016 presidential elections and higher than the last two midterms! Oglalas Got the VOTE OUT! Oglala votes mattered!”

Three: Montana still leads.

Eleven Native Americans will serve in the Montana Legislature, three in the Senate and eight in the House. That number equals parity with the state’s population (seven percent).

Montana is what the rest of the country ought to be (at least in terms of representation). Let’s do the math: There are 7,383 state legislators in the United States so if there were parity with the population, Native Americans would have at least 147 members. (Fifty-six Native legislators were elected last week). Tuesday was good. We have a long way to go.

In national terms, the Congress is now at one-third of one percent. In January it will double to two-thirds of one percent. Amber Ebarb, who looks at numbers for the National Congress of American Indians, says parity would be seven members of the U.S. House and at least two in the U.S. Senate. Tuesday was good. We have a long way to go.

Four: Be careful who you endorse.

Crow tribal leaders endorsed a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate over the Democratic incumbent, Jon Tester. Tester won and a big part of that was the state’s Native vote.

In fact: Just look at Crow voters. In Big Horn County, Montana, where the Crow Nation is located, some 5,578 voted in this election. Two years ago, during a presidential election, only 4,168 people voted and Tester earned nearly twice as many votes as Matt Rosendale. The people voted very differently than their tribal leadership.

Across Montana the bluest spots on the map are either cities or Indian Country. Native voters turned out big time and disproportionately for Tester. (Make that, again.)

Five: Earth zero, gaming 3.

Washington state tribes led on a climate change initiative and a carbon tax. So the fossil fuel industry spent millions convincing voters that it was too much with nearly a billion dollars in taxes. The no side won. A measure in Alaska to protect salmon was defeated by similar forces (and money). Clean energy initiatives were defeated in Arizona, Nevada and California. (But Nevada voters did pass a renewable energy standard.)

Tribal gaming was on the ballot in three states. Idaho’s horse racing industry wanted slot machines to prop up its business model. Voters passed. Florida voters passed an amendment to allowing voters, not the legislature, to expand casinos. And voters gave their ok to casinos in Arkansas.

Six: Voting rights, plus and minus.

The battle over voting rights was on the ballot in many forms, both with candidates and explicit initiatives.

In Montana, for example, voters largely banned third-party groups from collecting ballots. (This has been a favorite issue for many conservative groups.) North Carolina added new voter ID provisions.

But in Florida the right of felons to vote was restored. And in Michigan and Nevada new provisions were enacted that will make it easier to register and to vote.

More important: Many of the candidates -- and especially new governors -- ran on platforms to improve the mechanism for voting. This is important now because the Census will take place in 2020 and the redrawing of state and federal legislative districts.

Seven: The best time to appoint a Native delegate is now.

I have been writing for a few years now about the treaty-right for a Delegate to Congress. Delegates don’t vote, but have staff and participate in committee work. (Current delegates represent the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.)

Some tribes already have this treaty provision for the appointment of a delegate. This is an interesting position. It’s not Constitutional. It can be accomplished by a majority of the House.

A delegate (seven would be ideal) would give representation by tribal governments to the Congress. Government to government.

But if this is going to happen, it needs to happen quickly. The next Congress will organize soon and that’s the best opportunity for a delegate to be appointed and to serve. (Previous story. Fixing Democracy and including First Nations.)

Perhaps tribes should follow the example from Washington, D.C., and appoint a "shadow" delegate. This unofficial post could be someone whose job it would be to remind Congress of the awesome treaty right that needs to happen.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports

Email: mtrahant@IndianCountryToday.com


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