Elections 2012: As Goes Indian Country ... Goes the Nation?

Go back a couple hundred years. Think about the American political system as it was designed – especially the Electoral College – and a Constitution with little more than a quick reference to “Indians not taxed.” Now think about a political system where the tribes had a say, some clout and some respect.

What would the landscape look like? How about tribal nations included in the Electoral College. Based on the number of citizens that are present in a congressional district, a map of “tribal nations” would include at least two and possibly three electoral votes.

Why would that matter? The United States elects its presidents with a system that is convoluted. In fact this presidential election is now completely focused on voters who live in one of nine states. Conservative strategist Karl Rove puts those states as: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. His polls show those states as tied using an average of polls. (Remember most polls have a margin of error that’s based on the number of people questioned. So a candidate “leading” by 3 points when the margin of error is 4 points is really in a statistical tie.)

And, while Indian country doesn’t have two or three electoral votes, it does have voters and a potential for impact in all of the states in play.

Nevada is an interesting state to think about. Two years ago Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was up for re-election. The Republicans really would have liked to defeat him, that would have helped shift the Senate from Democratic Party control to the Republicans. The Republicans nominated a conservative, Sharron Angle. Normally Nevada would be a conservative state. But the race wasn’t even close. Reid won by 6 percent, a margin of more than 40,000 votes.

American Indians are only a fraction of the state’s population – less than two percent – but as in other states, that number becomes part of a voting coalition. The fastest growing group in Nevada is Hispanics, now more than a quarter of the population. Four years ago Obama put together that kind of coalition, as did Reid two years ago. The demographic coalition included women, younger voters, Hispanic voters, and Native Americans. The Reid operation is at work again.

Virginia shows a different picture because so many American Indian voters are federal employees. More than 65,000 federal workers live in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in the north part of the state.

But that constituency is more complicated. Some of those workers are in the defense industry and lay-off notices are expected soon as part of the budget cuts under the sequestration process.

Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, told WAMU radio that the pending defense cuts along with federal pay freezes puts this group of voters up for grab. “The only place the Obama Administration has made any cuts have been freezing federal employees' (pay) year after year after year,” he said. “So I think we've seen this administration fail with regard to federal employees.”

Then again Nevada is similar. There are more than 38,000 federal employees in the state and another 21,000 retirees.

The interesting thing about federal employees: They tend to vote in higher numbers than their neighbors. But it’s not a voting bloc. A recent study in a political journal put it this way: federal employees “are divided among themselves much as the society at large is divided.”

It would be interesting to see – if the data existed – how Native American federal employees voted. That information will probably surface about the same time as the tribal nations’ electoral vote is established. Of course it's preposterous. But it sure would be fun to hear pundits exclaiming, as goes Indian country, goes the nation.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.