Native American voters played an important role this election season, helping some non-Indian politicians get elected in state and national elections. However, Indian candidates did not fare as well, performing poorly at polls across the nation.
On Election Day, some observers were calling the Native influence “the Frybread Factor,” noting that Indians had the opportunity to provide the deciding votes in close races. Given the relatively small percentage of Indian voters, their votes tend to have the most sway when races are tight – something that has happened in state and national elections with increasing frequency in recent years.
“The balance of power, or swing votes, for the candidate that can represent our needs best is the most important vote there is even if it is only 1 or 2 percent,” commented News From Indian Country Editor Paul DeMain on Facebook, while encouraging Natives to vote. “That’s all a winning candidate needs is 50 percent plus 1 vote. Very powerful position to be in, and it will be called forever, the ‘Frybread Factor.’”
Analysts are citing a few examples of an Indian effect this year, namely in Alaska in support of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and in Washington state for Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. Both politicians faced tough election battles, and the Native constituencies in their states were seen as pushing them over the edge in close races. As of press time, both politicians were expected to prevail, but votes were still being analyzed.
In South Dakota, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who was one of the politicians the Indian vote helped put into office beginning in 2004, lost her re-election bid.
“The Native vote tends to get noticed more at a national level when there is a presidential race,” said Chris Stearns, co-founder of Native Vote Washington. “But, if you look at the massive get-out-the-vote efforts of Patty Murray’s and Lisa Murkowski’s re-election campaigns aimed at the tribes, and the support they received, it tells a story of the growing power of the Native vote at the state level.”
In terms of Washington, Stearns noted that many districts this year have been decided by close margins.
“There was definitely a key play for Native voters in the Washington battleground counties of King, Pierce and Snohomish where you have over 12,000 Native votes in play, many of them urban Indians in Seattle and Tacoma. And that includes the combined votes of the Puyallup, Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Snoqualmie tribes (and a lot of Nisqually).
“The fact is that many districts in Washington are going to be decided by close margins, and with 29 tribes and over 100,000 Native votes at stake in a good year, you can’t ignore those votes.”
The Indian vote has played a major factor in the state before. Six years ago, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire won by just 133 votes, and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell won in 2001 by 2,229 votes.
Steve Wackowski, communications director for the Murkowski campaign, said, “The Alaska Native vote was critical to this election.” With all of Alaska’s precincts reporting, results showed nearly 41 percent of voters cast a write-in ballot. Those ballots were in the process of being checked after Election Day to see that the voters supported Murkowski over Republican Joe Miller, who received 34 percent.
Even given the influence of Native voters in tight races, attention from most politicians is still hard to come by.
“Honestly, I feel politicians have realized tribes are willing to donate to campaigns; therefore they have political contribution asks in to all tribes, but do I feel they reach out to Native voters? No, I do not feel politicians reach out to Native voters,” said Theresa Sheldon, a Native vote Washington organizer and member of the Tulalip Tribes.
She noted with disappointment that the Democrats in her state only put a Native coordinator on their campaign with pay during the presidential election year.
Stearns said Natives continue to make efforts to be recognized nationwide, such as through combined efforts of tribes and urban Indians to identify themselves and collect their own numbers, as well as the advances in technology, allowing the two parties to capture and map voters within each state and county.
This year, as in election years since 1955, the National Congress of American Indians conducted a Native vote initiative, aimed at increasing Native votes. In addition to outreach to tribes and individual Indians, the organization hosted www.nativevote.org, offering resources to help officials get out the vote on reservations.
NCAI President Jefferson Keel called for American Indians and Alaska Natives to report any problems during Election Day, especially after NCAI had been monitoring possible disenfranchisement of Indian voters on the Spirit Lake Nation. County officials in North Dakota had planned to close polling places on the reservation, but, after Native attention, a judge ruled that this action could not occur.
“In North and South Dakota we were glad to see things taken care of before the elections,” said Thom Wallace, NCAI spokesman, who added that his office was looking at whether there were any irregularities reported in Indian country on Election Day itself. No immediate wide-scale problems for Indian voters stood out.
Wallace also said the organization is examining Indian turnout in many states beyond Alaska and Washington to determine impact.
“For a midterm election, it’s already a promising sign that organizing for get-out-the-vote efforts were so strong in some areas of the country, and these are successes that can be built on for the future.”
Beyond their support for non-Indian politicians, Indians have increasingly put themselves on state and local ballots in recent years with some degree of success. This year, wins were hard to come by.
“We are deeply disappointed by the loss of progressive champions like the only Indian in the Pennsylvania assembly, Rep. Barbara McIlvaine Smith who was narrowly defeated and Washington state Sen. Claudia Kauffman, the first and only Indian woman in that state’s chamber, who is currently behind in the vote tally,” said Kalyn Free, director of the Indigenous Native Democratic Network, in a statement after Election Day. Kauffman conceded her race Nov. 4.
“Our efforts to put the first Indian in the Wisconsin Assembly by electing Mert Summers were thwarted. Likewise, in our three statewide races, Arizona Secretary of State candidate Chris Deschene, Oklahoma’s State Auditor Steve Burrage, and South Dakota’s candidate for Commissioner of School and Public Lands Bob Pille were all pilloried.”
In total, INDN’s List candidates won 12 of 27 battles, meaning in January, there will be far fewer Indians holding political offices than currently.
Jeff Doctor, a Seneca candidate for U.S. Congress, also lost his bid in North Carolina by a large margin.
Free said if tribes want more Indian candidates elected, they need to be willing to provide donations – something she said was rare this year.
“Until tribes start supporting their own tribal members, then nothing is going to change. The effort and the focus should be on building and strengthening our own candidates.”