Elections 2012: Beyond the Ballot – Why Districts Matter to Native Americans

Congressional Districts of Arizona

Mark Trahant

Elections 2012: Beyond the Ballot – Why Districts Matter to Native Americans

There is a conflict that cannot be resolved at the ballot: The geography of tribal borders versus fair, democratic elections in the American system.

The imbalance starts with Congress. The Census shows that there are 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, including people of more than one race. That means there ought to be at least seven American Indians and Alaska Natives serving in Congress.

But that’s not the way elections work, of course. Tribal nations are not considered in the apportionment process, only states.

(And if you really want to be undemocratic, there is the U.S. Senate, where a vote from Wyoming is worth 68 times more than one from California. But that’s another post.)

The nation’s largest tribal nation, Navajo, is not large enough for a congressional seat (even without considering state borders). Its population is only about half-a-seat in terms of population.

Arizona’s first congressional district represents the nearest thing to an American Indian majority district with a population of 162,087 or 22.8 percent of the district. Just across the border, Navajo voters, along with Hispanics, make up the majority of New Mexico’s third congressional district at more than 56 percent.

The percentage of Native American voters drops considerably after those two districts, starting with Oklahoma’s second where Native Americans are about 17 percent of the population.

So it’s a stacked deck at the national level. Native American voters must be a part of a larger election coalition in order to win, or at least, be a part of a winning team.

Even at the state level reservations are often excluded from having “majority” districts where Indian vote alone can win. In Montana, a state where American Indians are six percent of the population, there were only two districts majority Indian. A 1990 commission to redistrict was, according to the American Civil Liberties Commission, openly hostile to Indian majority districts. “Commissioners called the plans submitted by tribal members ‘idiotic; and ‘a bunch of crap’ and one declared that it would take the federal government to step in to draw district boundaries that respected tribal interests and reservation boundaries,” the ACLU said.

It was litigation that lasted a decade long that pressed for reform. The result: … “At the next legislative election, Montana elected eight tribal members to the legislature – the most of any state legislature at the time.”

Earlier this year when those gains were threatened, the Crow Nation wrote to the state’s districting and apportionment commission that it had a strong record of participation “with general turnout that is among the highest of the seven Montana Indian reservations, often exceeding 65 percent.” Both the Crow Tribe and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe told the state it would oppose any effort to dilute that vote with urban and suburban voters.

Native Alaskans have also been pressing for districts that improve their chances. But the Supreme Court in May said there was a conflict between the state constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act. The constitution calls for legislative districts to be compact, while the Voting Rights Act seeks to ensure minority voting.

One of the redistricting board members, PeggyAnn McConnochie, told The Juneau Empire that the new districts are “abhorrent.” She said it could make it difficult for the Southeast’s Native legislators to win re-election.

What that means is that two Natives currently in the legislature are now in districts with fewer Alaska Native voters, Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, and Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines.

Last winter Kookesh said there are two ways to start fairy tales. “Once upon a time,” is one. And the second? “If I am elected …” Kookesh said: “I always remember that to keep my feet on the ground.”

That sort of grounding might come in handy. Alaska is trying to make the districting process even more difficult for Alaska Native communities. The state filed suit against the U.S. Department of Justice saying it should not have to get clearance from Washington over voting maps (as many Southern states are required to do).

The state says the voting rights overview is not necessary because “the proportion of Alaska Native elected officials in Alaska closely corresponds to the proportion of Alaska Native voters in the population.”

However there’s no mention in the complaint about shrinking Native voting districts. And, on the other side, there probably won’t be enough evidence of harm. Until after the election.

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.