WASHINGTON - With national elections just 11 months away and more than a half-dozen caucuses and primaries scheduled during the first five weeks of the new year, the campaign season is off and running.
How is Indian country planning to get out the vote and prepare its citizens to make informed choices when they get to the polls?
A scan of the Internet turned up very little in the way of a centralized site or blogs that are providing specific, reliable information about candidates, their positions on issues important to Indian country, and the election process - but that's about to change.
On Jan. 19, the National Congress of American Indians plans to launch its updated Native Vote Web site: www.nativevote.org. That date precedes the organization's annual State of the Indian Nations address, which will take place Jan. 31 at the National Press Club in Washington.
The new site will have everything the 2004 site had and more, said NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson.
''The new Web site will have updated information on the secretaries of state, new rules for various states, and links to what the candidates and the parties are saying about Indian country. It will have training materials and a message board for people to ask questions,'' she said.
In essence, NCAI hopes the site will become ''campaign central'' for Indian country.
''That is the goal,'' Johnson said.
Native Vote, a groundbreaking and successful campaign to register and turn out a record number of American Indian and Alaska Native voters, was launched in 2004.
''We took it very seriously in 2004 and really wanted to elevate it to a level it had never been at before. So we made a lot of commitments in the press to organize Indian country particularly in states where the votes would be tight, and we targeted those states,'' Johnson said.
The result was a groundswell of support, with tribes organizing their own Native Vote coordinators who produced record numbers of registered voters and successful get-out-the-vote campaigns.
One of Native Vote's ongoing projects is to collect data on voters in Indian country. The Census Bureau counted around 4.1 million AI/AN in 2000, with approximately 2.73 million over the age of 18 and eligible to vote. Since the Native population is one of the fastest-growing demographics, the number of eligible AI/AN voters is now estimated to be more than 3 million. That's a sizeable voting block spread all over the continent. And in districts throughout Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, Native voters could swing elections.
But there are gaps in data about the numbers of voters in Indian country and there is no comprehensive data base that accurately reflects the true number of voters.
At its annual meeting in November, the NCAI announced an aggressive plan to count every Indian vote in the 2008 elections and to create a national infrastructure and network for empowering the Native vote throughout the United States.
''We have to ramp up our voter participation initiative in 2008,'' said NCAI President Joe Garcia. ''Increasing civic participation among American Indian and Alaska Native communities is imperative to protecting sovereignty and ensuring Native issues are addressed on every level of government.''
Targeted states this year include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.
On the East Coast, the United South and Eastern Tribes will hold a strategy assessment meeting Jan. 22 to plan its election year efforts, said President Brian Patterson. The organization does not have a specific program to educate voters about the political scene yet.
''That is an area of USET that I'd really like to strengthen. USET has more congressional delegates in its area than any other region in the country, and over the years, our 25-member nations have become consistently more sophisticated in their dealings in the political arena. But our Web site [www .usetinc.org] is kind of static in terms of current election information, so that's one of the areas we'll be addressing,'' Patterson said.
Members of East Coast tribes regularly testify before Congress and have developed extensive legislative relationships on Capitol Hill, but more needs to be done, Patterson said.
''Indian country needs to remain even more aggressive and assertive this year and we continue to be in contact with all our tribes to advocate for our issues, such as the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and education improvements.''
USET tribes pay particular attention to educating young people about politics and the political process.
''We work with an organization called the Close Up Foundation [www .closeup.org] and bring our youth to Washington every year so they can walk the halls of Congress and become aware of the legislative process and the issues that affect them in Indian country, and meet the people who are making decision on their behalf.''
But, because of their particular status as nonprofit organizations, neither NCAI nor USET can endorse candidates or form political actions committees.
Not so the Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN's List, which was launched in 2005. It is a grass-roots political organization devoted to recruiting and electing Native candidates and mobilizing the Indian vote throughout America on behalf of those candidates.
Kalyn Free, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is the president and founder of INDN's List. She formerly served as an environmental and criminal prosecutor in the Department of Justice and has extensive campaign experience at the tribal, local, state and federal levels.
''We are dedicated to making a unified Indian voice heard at the local, state and national levels by helping Indians build and run effective campaign organizations and to win elected offices across America,'' Free says on the organization's Web site, www.indnslist.org.
INDN's List is supporting a select group of Indian candidates for state and local offices across the country this year. More information is available at the Web site.
A search on the Internet did not turn up a similar organization for Republican candidates.