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Gover: The American Indian vote comes of age

There was a lot of good news in the Nov. 5 election results for American Indians. Indian gaming referenda were passed in Arizona and Idaho. Seven Indians were elected to the Montana state legislature. A governor very friendly to tribal interests was elected in New Mexico (former Congressman and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson), and it appears another respecter of tribal sovereignty was elected governor in Arizona (former United States Attorney Janet Napolitano). And long-time friend of the tribes Tim Johnson was re-elected to the Senate from South Dakota.

Beneath these results, though, lies the greatest news of all: Indian votes count. And in a close election in the right state, Indian votes can be the difference between the election of a friend and the election of an adversary.

In the late 1980s, I worked for several New Mexico tribes that decided it would help their cause to get more involved in the political process and began effective efforts to register tribal members to vote in state and federal elections. While this was not a new idea, it marked the beginning of aggressive and organized political involvement among the tribes. There had always been a few kingpin tribal leaders whose endorsements were sought by candidates for public office, but there were few if any broad and systematic efforts to register Indians to vote.

Activists in other states, uniformly Democrats, began Indian voter registration efforts in their states as well, and by the time the 1992 presidential election rolled around, there seemed to be a national effort by the Democrats to register Indian voters and turn them out to support then-Gov. Clinton. The appearance, frankly, was deceiving to some degree. While there were Indian activists working on behalf of the Democrats in several states, these efforts could not truly be characterized as a national initiative. Nevertheless, appearances meaning so much in politics, it appeared that there was an organized national effort.

Two states stood out in the 1992 election. In New Mexico, the state Democratic Party made a concentrated effort to involve tribal leaders in the Clinton campaign. These efforts resulted in all of the state's 23 tribal leaders endorsing Clinton, and a Democrat carried the state in a presidential election for the first time since 1968. Thirty thousand votes were cast from Indian precincts, the most ever, and 90 percent of those votes went to Clinton. Clinton won in New Mexico by 45,000 votes; over half of that margin came from the reservations.

The results in Montana were even more dramatic. Clinton won in Montana, carrying all of the state's cities. In the rural counties, though, he was beaten badly, except in those counties where Indian reservations were located. He won in those counties, and turnouts of 80 and 90 percent were reported on the reservations. Montana's Indian Democratic activists clearly carried the state for Clinton.

The potential of the Indian vote to make the difference in close elections was thus established, and politicians of both parties became more serious in seeking Indian support. In 1994, Republican gubernatorial candidate Gary Johnson turned to New Mexico's gaming tribes for their support. The gaming tribes, all Pueblo and Apache, supported Johnson against anti-gambling Democrat Bruce King, and provided tens of thousands of dollars to Johnson's campaign.

When the votes were counted, though, the Indian precincts had cast 65 percent of their votes for King. Navajo voters apparently could not bring themselves to vote against the Democrat. Still, losing 65 percent of the Indian vote is much better than losing 90 percent. Moreover, the high visibility of the tribal leaders who supported the Republican candidate created the perception that the Indian vote had been a key factor in the defeat of the Democratic incumbent.

The Indian vote in New Mexico had matured into a potent force by the 1996 presidential campaign. All but one of the state's tribal leaders endorsed President Clinton, and Clinton again captured 90 percent of the Indian vote. The Indian vote was not decisive in Clinton's landslide win, but one impressive statistic stood out for Indian activists. Although only 11 percent of the state's voting-age population was Native American, Indians cast 15 percent of the vote in New Mexico in 1996. This means that Indian turnout, traditionally very low, was actually higher than the turnout for the state as a whole. Now that's Indian voting power.

By the 2000 election, federal and statewide candidates in New Mexico and elsewhere were fully aware of the strength of the Indian vote, and candidates Bush and Gore openly courted tribal leaders for their support. Despite earnest appeals from the Republican candidates, the tribes stayed true to their Democratic tradition and voted overwhelmingly for Vice-President Gore. Gore won New Mexico by only a few hundred votes. Tens of thousands of Indian votes clearly provided the margin of victory.

In the State of Washington in 2000, the tribes set out to defeat Republican Senator Slade Gorton, and they did so. The impact of the Indian vote is difficult to tally, because Indians represent a relatively small percentage of Washington voters. Nevertheless, the tribes made themselves a key part of the coalition that eked out a narrow victory.

Indian Democrats like me had been touting to the party the wisdom of developing the party's strength among Indian voters, pointing out that, in several western states, Indians could provide the margin of victory in close elections. In states like Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and South Dakota, Indian voters could be extremely important parts of winning Democratic coalitions. Indeed, without Indian votes, Democratic candidates stood very little chance of winning.

Some of this was hype, frankly. The numbers were real enough, but it still was not clear that a targeted voter registration and get-out-the-vote effort could succeed in a place like South Dakota, where Indians register and vote only in small numbers. It is easy to understand why. Given the dire poverty of the South Dakota Indian population, many Indians believed that their votes were meaningless; potential Indian voters lacked hope and had no confidence whatsoever in the political process.

But a remarkable thing happened. Indian Democrats, with strong support from the state Democratic Party and the campaign of Sen. Tim Johnson, set out to prove that the Indian vote could be decisive in South Dakota. And did they ever! Although Indian voters have long been part of the winning coalition of Sen. Tom Daschle and Sen. Johnson, never before have Indian voters been so visible in South Dakota, and never before so decisive a factor in the outcome. Turnout on the reservations hit record levels everywhere in South Dakota, and those votes clearly carried Sen. Johnson to victory over John Thune, the man recruited by President Bush to run against Johnson. While Democrats elsewhere were losing tight elections in states where President Bush campaigned hard for Republicans, the record Indian vote stemmed the tide in South Dakota.

Meanwhile, Arizona tribes were also registering and turning out their voters in support of Proposition 202, a tribal gaming initiative sponsored by a coalition of 17 tribes. The initiative appears likely to pass by a margin of 20- to 30,000 votes, a fine win for the tribes under difficult circumstances. But along with their votes for Proposition 202, the early returns indicate that Indian voters also supported Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Napolitano. Absentee and early votes are still being counted at this writing, and if Napolitano wins, her margin of victory likely will have been provided by Indian voters.

These ventures into the electoral process required courage and commitment from both the leadership and the general membership of the tribes. In South Dakota especially, new Indian voters were subjected to intimidation in the form of Republican threats to pursue allegations of vote fraud on the reservations. Thankfully, these bold ventures to turn out the Indian vote were met with success in Arizona and South Dakota. The Indian voters in those states now know for sure that their votes can make a difference in the outcome of close races. Congratulations to the activists and visionaries who made it happen.

In the political system today, tribes have two ways to make their mark. One is money, and the other is votes. Small tribes in large states like California cannot influence the process with their votes, so they use their wealth to do so. We shouldn't fault that, but neither should we mistake the influence that money can buy for the kind of power that comes from votes. Money can win you access and the occasional favor. But putting your votes behind someone who needs them wins a supporter for life.

The tribes won some important races both for themselves and for some important friends last Nov. 5. More importantly, they have served notice that the Indian vote has come of age. The Indian vote must continue to grow stronger, and it can. In a country where less than two-thirds of the eligible citizens vote in presidential elections, even a small minority can have a disproportionate impact on elections if they get out and vote in larger numbers than the public at large.

When we become known as people who protect our interests aggressively at the ballot box, we gain the respect of those who make decisions affecting our lives. Politicians of both parties already are competing for money from the tribes, and we should doubt seriously the sincerity of elected officials and their parties when they do so. Now, though, they have begun competing for our votes, and the question becomes not what we can do for them, but what they are going to do for us.

Kevin Gover, a columnist for Indian Country Today, is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Mr. Gover's practice focuses on federal law relating to Indians and on Indian tribal law. He is the former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.