WASHINGTON - It is still early for the 2004 presidential elections, early
enough that every crystal ball is bound to be cloudy.
Even so, this much can be said with certainty: events have fallen out in
such a way as to position the Indian vote for decisive influence on Nov. 2.
In fact, the Native vote has never been so crucial to the prospects of a
president, nor to the majority party in the Senate.
This is due to two factors: a polarization in American politics that has
led each presidential candidate to concede the electoral vote in about 30
states to his rival, as a foregone conclusion; and an anticipated tight
election in which the winner, as in 2000, may be crowned by only a handful
of electoral votes.
Those votes will come from 16 or 17 so-called "battleground states," states
that were decided by 6 percent of the vote or less in 2000. (Another three
or four states, namely Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana and perhaps New
Jersey, lean Republican or Democrat now, but could become battleground
states if the other party focuses resources on putting them into play.)
Among the current battleground states, where the candidates are
concentrating a majority of their time and money, Indian people hold the
"swing vote" - the key few percentage points of total popular votes that
could swing electoral votes whichever way they are cast - in a handful of
Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota,
Michigan ... in each of these, the presidential race is expected to be
exceedingly close, as they were in 2004 with Bush taking the electoral
votes of Arizona and Nevada by 5 and 4 percent respectively, and Democratic
candidate Al Gore landing the others, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin by
less than 1 percent, Minnesota by 2 percent, Washington by 4 percent and
Michigan by 5.
And in each, the Native population is positioned to provide the few
percentage points of the total popular vote that would deliver electoral
votes to the victor.
In several of these states and South Dakota as well, Senate races will also
be close-run. South Dakota provided a presage of that scenario on June 1.
Stephanie Herseth, a Democrat, defeated Republican Larry Diedrich in a
special election to fill the seat of William Janklow, forced to resign from
the House of Representatives following his conviction for felony
manslaughter in a traffic death. Herseth's margin of victory was 2,981
votes out of 261,773, or 51 percent to 49. Indian voters cast ballots in
record numbers, more than doubling their turnout in several Indian-populous
counties that include the Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River Sioux and
Standing Rock reservations. The Indian vote is widely credited with
delivering a Senate seat to Democrat Tim Johnson, by only 524 ballots, in
2002, and both parties said it delivered again on June 1.
Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican in the House, said that without the Indian
vote, the Republican candidate would have prevailed. Tom Daschle,
Democratic Minority Leader in the Senate, called the special election "yet
another race where the Native vote made the difference."
Herseth will fill the remainder of Janklow's term before facing the voters
again for a full term in November. In the meantime, she becomes the 205th
Democrat in the House, joining 228 Republicans and one Independent.
The Senate is still more closely divided, with 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats
and one Independent.
Though the presidential race will be the focus of the Nov. 4 elections, the
House and Senate contests are no less important. In both chambers, the
majority party dominates committee structure, deciding which bills come up
for a vote and which are tabled, which "riders" get a hearing and which do
not. In addition, the more votes a minority party can count on, the more
likely it will be to keep majority bills from coming to a vote through
parliamentary maneuvers such as the filibuster, or deliberately prolonged
debate. As the current 108th Congress so far proves on several counts, even
the fate legislation favored by a sitting president, in a Congress his
party controls, may come to depend on good will from the minority party.
The unprecedented potential impact of the Indian vote in 2004 can be
reckoned from the simple fact that in some states, Indian voters can swing
the vote for both the presidency - and the majority party in the Senate.
The National Congress of American Indians is spearheading efforts to turn
out more Indian voters in 2004 than ever before. NCAI takes note of the
In Alaska, Alaska Natives make up 16 percent of eligible voters. Lisa
Murkowski, a Republican appointed to fill the Senate seat of her father,
Frank Murkowski, after he became the state's governor, is up for
In Arizona, almost 300,000 Indians make up 5.7 percent of the state's
In Colorado, Indians make up 1.5 percent of the population. With Republican
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell retiring, one Senate seat is open.
In Michigan, Indians make up 1.3 percent of the state's population; in
Minnesota, 1.6 percent.
In Nevada, where Republican Sen. Harry Reid is up for re-election, the
Indian percentage of the population is 2.1.
In New Mexico, Indians are 10.5 percent of the population.
In North Dakota, where Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, is up for
re-election, Indians are 5.5 percent of the population.
In Oklahoma, where Republican Sen. Don Nickles is up for re-election,
Native people make up 8 percent of the total population.
In Oregon, where Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden is up for re-election, Indians
make up 2.5 percent of the state population.
In South Dakota, 9 percent of the state population is Indian. Sen. Tom
Daschle, the Democratic Minority Leader, is up for re-election. As
mentioned above, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth, winner of a special
election to the House of Representatives June 1, will face the voters again
In Utah, where Republican Sen. Robert Bennett is up for reelection, Indians
make up 1.8 percent of the population.
In Washington, where Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is up for re-election,
Indians are 2.7 percent of the state's population.
In Wisconsin, where Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold is up for re-election,
Indians make up 1.3 percent of the population.
Of course, none of these races will be decided on Indian issues alone. In
Arizona and New Mexico, the Hispanic vote will play a large role. In
Nevada, President Bush's decision to make Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las
Vegas, the national nuclear waste dump is not expected to play well with
the state's Republican-leaning electorate. In the industrial economy
enclaves of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, jobs are said to be the
major issue, but President Bush's approval rating is declining almost
commensurate with a resurgent job market. In Oregon and Washington,
Democratic challenger John Kerry is expected to benefit from the coastal
states' environmental concerns. And throughout the battleground states,
recent polls have found Arab citizens abandoning Bush.
But the closer the 2004 elections become, the more prominently loom Indian
people as holders of a decisive swing vote. If there is one issue that
unites all Indian voters as they weigh the different candidates, NCAI has
suggested it: "We will not support candidates who do not support our