WASHINGTON – Leaders of the Democratic and Republican national committees have made it clear that they want to see Native voters turn out at the polls. Despite that goal, several in the Native vote field say they’ve seen few specific efforts by the DNC or RNC to get out the vote on reservations this year.
It’s not that the organizations are ignoring Indian voters. The DNC’s Web site, for instance, states explicitly that the “Democratic Party fully supports Native Americans’ participation in the electoral process” and that it “recognizes the power of the Native vote.” To that end, the DNC site says the organization has hired Native coordinators in key states and held several campaign worker training sessions for American Indians.
But beyond the items featured on the site, it’s difficult to get the DNC to talk specifics, especially in terms of allocated resources and dollars spent. When Indian Country Today contacted the organization to ask about its GOTV Native efforts this season, a spokesman immediately referred requests to Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign: “The Obama campaign would be better able to speak to those efforts.”
Much like the DNC’s Web site, the RNC Internet presence includes a section on American Indians under its “coalitions” section – which links directly to Sen. John McCain’s Web site section that notes his policies on Indian issues.
Daniel McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah and a Native vote expert, said it’s “pretty typical” that the national organizations have left much of the get-out-the-vote heavy lifting this election cycle to the presidential campaigns and regional efforts.
“The national parties calculate where their efforts can do the most good for the top of the ticket,” he said. “They initially say they are interested in getting out the Native vote, and then they go on to focus on where they think their time and resources will best pay off – which is what we’ve seen during this election.”
The presidential campaigns have been more than willing to take the lead on Native GOTV efforts, with the Obama campaign hiring Wizi Garriott, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, to work as the senator’s First Americans vote director. In that capacity, he’s helped place organizers specifically aimed at getting out the Native vote for Obama in states including Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Michigan.
The McCain camp, meanwhile, has relied heavily on Native politicos, including former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, and Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, to help turn out the Native vote. It also opened an office located on the Navajo Nation, which registers Native voters, while concurrently spreading the campaign’s message.
Beyond the campaigns, regional efforts – some led by Natives and some led by state party officials – have popped up, especially in states with large numbers of tribes.
In Washington, for instance, Rebecca George, the Native vote director for the state Democratic Party, has helped register 1,000 new Native voters this cycle and identified 6,000 Native voters for targeted GOTV efforts.
She said the resources for her work have derived from the state party; she was unsure how much, if any, funding has been provided by the national party.
Theresa Sheldon, a Tulalip leader with the Native Vote Washington grass-roots voter education group, said she is “not at all” surprised that the big party leaders have not made the Native vote a pressing concern.
“I live in the 38th District [of Washington], and I tried to work my way through the process to get to the DNC. The 38th District’s invisible boundaries completely surround the Tulalip reservation, yet we were not able to get one Native person into the congressional caucus.
“It was another example of how Native people are completely ignored or disregarded when it comes to politics and voting. The large parties have no desire to make the system more user-friendly because they control that system.”
Sheldon said that American Indians in her state have received more accolades as a result of large donations to specific politicians than for any of their GOTV efforts.
Few think it’s a bad development that the presidential camps and regional efforts are focused on Native GOTV efforts, but some question why the national organizations aren’t doing more – especially considering their vast resources and past institutional experiences.
To those concerns, Chris Stearns, a Native voting and legal expert in Washington, said that what some perceive as a limited effort on behalf of direct DNC or RNC support is more a function of campaign finance rules.
He also noted that while the DNC trains American Indians to be organizers – an effort paid for directly by DNC funds – the end result is that those organizers go out to the states to work for coordinated campaigns efforts.
McCool said the national parties may spend more money on getting out reservation voters in close swing states at the last minute as they try to make a final push to help their respective candidates win.
“I can’t speak for the major parties, but I’m guessing that their strategy is to spend their limited resources on the tightest races. I would not be surprised to see major party efforts on Indian reservations in a state where the race is very close and there is a perception that the Indian vote could make the difference.”