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The Democratic Party’s Indian Problem (And Guess Who’s Next?)

Native Americans wonder how Democrats said ‘no’ to minority civil rights in the second decade of the 21st century—and in an election year.

UPDATED MARCH 26 to 7th Paragraph: On the afternoon of March 9, the Montana Democratic Party leadership was holed up in a small stone building in the state’s capital, Helena. Inside were Democratic National Committee members Jorge Quintana and Jean Lemire Dahlman, party chair Nancy Anderson and other members of the party’s executive board.

Outside on the sidewalk were Mark Wandering Medicine, from Northern Cheyenne, and three other Native Americans who had tried to persuade the Democrats to express support for equal voting access. An Indian Country Today Media Network team and a documentary film crew waited with them, hoping to learn how Democrats had just ended up saying ‘no’ to minority civil rights in the second decade of the 21st century—and in an election year.

Across the street was a striking bronze statue of Montana’s first territorial governor, Brigadier General (and Democrat) Thomas Meagher. He’s depicted astride a warhorse and brandishing a saber—forever in command. For today’s Democrats inside the building, the mood was perhaps less so. As the sunny afternoon wore on, they began exiting the building, bolting out the back or down the front steps, chins tucked, grimacing. They refused to comment on their rejection of the resolution Wandering Medicine had offered.

The document requested party support for satellite-voting offices on reservations during the month leading up to each federal election. The offices, he and 14 additional Native plaintiffs contend in a federal lawsuit, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, would give reservation residents the same ballot-box access as those living off reservations. The latter vote in county courthouses during that month. The U.S. Department of Justice has joined the suit on the side of the plaintiffs. Lead defendant is Montana’s secretary of state and top elections official, Linda McCulloch, a Democrat.

Wandering Medicine presented the resolution to the Montana Democrats’ executive board. Press was barred. Accompanying him were his wife, Ilo; William Main, Gros Ventre former chairman of Fort Belknap and board member of Four Directions voting rights group; Michaelynn Hawk, Crow head of Indian People’s Action, in Butte; and Bret Healy, Four Directions consultant.

The executive board didn’t vote on Wandering Medicine’s request. “They wouldn’t even bring it to the floor,” he said after the meeting. A spiritual leader as well as a Vietnam veteran wounded in action, he’s from a tribe that sent virtually all of its military-eligible members to fight that war—1,700 out of a population of 7,500, he recalled. He’s a man of gravitas and honor. “We’re on record as American patriots. We aren’t asking for anything other than voting, the most fundamental right of our democracy.”

Joe Zummo

Mark Wandering Medicine, Northern Cheyenne, describes his meeting with the Montana Democrats’ executive board in Helena, March 9.

The party did endorse an alternate resolution from its Montana Indian Democrats Council without explicitly stating support for satellite stations in the month leading up to election day on the Montana reservations in question. The resolution states, “…the Montana Democratic Party supports opportunities to improve same-day voter registration and early vote options including in-person Satellite Early-Vote Locations…” The statement then endorsed “… continued research into offering online voter registration, and even possibly early vote opportunities in the future”—types of balloting that don’t exist in Montana and are largely out of the reach of Native Americans living on reservations and on the other side of the digital divide. Speaking on background, an official close to the process explained that the references to “early voting” in these clauses were meant colloquially, not legally.

OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux co-head of Four Directions, said that made the MIDC resolution nonsensical, since it used careful legalese elsewhere—hedging by supporting “equitable,” rather than “equal,” voting, for example. Semans provided ICTMN the MIDC draft resolution that it gave Wandering Medicine the day before the meeting. The document has “equal” crossed out and the less robust term “equitable” inked in. In the final draft the party itself provided ICTMN, “equal” is gone altogether, and “equitable,” meaning mere fairness, is typed in. (Montana Democratic Party communications director Bryan Watt contacted ICTMN to note that the word “equality” appears later in the MIDC resolution. However, ICTMN observes that, again, the document hedges. The word appears within a phrase—“continuing to fight for equality in voting access”—that seems to advocate a process that may result in equality, but falls short of advocating equality itself.)

Semans said he was furious. “I wasn’t there back when the treaties were written, but now I see how it worked. Party operatives and lawyers know perfectly well what means what. They twisted the English language and the law with intent to deceive us. They thought, ‘Those dumb Indians will never figure it out!’”

A Democratic Party official called “presumptuous” ICTMN’s questions about the party’s actions and said the MIDC resolution was a strong endorsement of equality, approved unanimously by the executive board.

“MIDC is party-appointed,” objected Hawk, a former group member. “They represent the Democratic Party, not the tribes.”

“That’s what’s been happening all along,” said Wandering Medicine. “Double talk and dragging out the process.”

Main’s reaction? “They thought they could pacify us enough to get our vote.”

RELATED: The Long and Winding Road: Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch

The elephant in the room

Voter suppression is one activity where politicians reach across the aisle in the Treasure State. Opposing the Wandering Medicine plaintiffs—from Northern Cheyenne, Fort Belknap and Crow—are 14 Republican and Democratic officials. They teamed up before the 2012 election to fight the requested reservation polling places. Their attorneys are a top-level bipartisan pair—DNC member Quintana is McCulloch’s lawyer, while South Dakota Republican Party secretary Sara Frankenstein represents the other defendants.

RELATED: DOJ Declares Indian Vote Denial ‘Completely Incorrect’

Keeping voting inconvenient for a minority group is a puzzling philosophical choice for the party of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. It’s not legal, according to the Justice Department. And it’s hardly strategic. Montana’s American Indians are 6.5 percent of the population and register overwhelmingly Democratic in a state of hard-fought elections and razor-thin margins. When Indian turnout was low in 2010, Democrats “took a shellacking,” and the GOP earned a supermajority in the state legislature, reported the Billings [Montana] Gazette. Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester has credited his one-percent 2012 win to Native voters. The party’s spokesman would not explain its stance on the requested satellite offices.

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When tribes first asked for the month-long access ahead of the 2012 election, McCulloch called satellite offices illegal—until she was corrected by then-attorney general, now governor, Steve Bullock. After that, McCulloch and Republican and Democratic county officials said it was too complicated to run two voting terminals in a county in advance of Election Day: one at the courthouse and one on the reservation. Recently, McCulloch’s elections deputy admitted in a Wandering Medicine deposition that their office has done nothing in the past 18 months to adjust the state’s voting computer program to smooth the process.

Keeping American Indians from the ballot box makes more sense for the GOP, which benefits from depressed turnout in some groups; it began pushing voter-suppression measures nationwide within hours of the Supreme Court’s June 2013 Shelby decision, according to the ACLU. In Montana, the GOP-dominated legislature placed a referendum to end Election Day registration on the 2014 ballot. If approved, this would hit young, senior and Native voters, said Montana Democratic state legislator Sharon Peregoy, who’s Crow.

RELATED: Montana Voting-Rights Backlash; Governor Calls Legislators ‘Worse Than Washington’

Joe Zummo

Montana Governor Steve Bullock left) speaks to Mark Wandering Medicine, Northern Cheyenne, at the Montana Democrats annual Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner, in Helena, March 8.

Yet, Montana Republican Congressman Steve Daines, who’s running for the Senate, is reaching out to tribes. He appointed a tribal liaison, Amanda Peterson, from Crow, saying he wants to ensure Native voices are heard and the government-to-government relationship is strong. He has backed issues important to tribes, including preventing violence against women. Concerning voting rights, spokeswoman Alee Lockman said Daines considered this a state matter, but urged “a resolution that will ultimately ensure Montana Native Americans are able to exercise their right to vote.” He also supported the sequester, the government shutdown and cuts in food stamps, all of which are tough on tribes.

Native voters may reconsider allegiances in the context of low party loyalty throughout Montana, said Main. “Politicians switch all the time. In the 2014 primary, one Democratic candidate is a former Republican lieutenant governor.” Main added, “Many of us Indians are Kennedy Democrats, voting to honor our grandparents’ admiration of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. We may rethink that.”

Semans foresaw Indians registering as Independents, saying, “It would do more good in the long run.”

Said Peregoy: “No one should take the Indian vote for granted.”

Party time!

Montana Democrats were cheerier on the night before their ill-fated meeting with Wandering Medicine. Ladies in party dresses and gents in trim suits showed up for their annual dinner, at Helena’s Lewis & Clark Fairgrounds. Senator Tester was one of the first luminaries to arrive, swaggering into the cavernous hall. The biggest, brawniest guy in any room, he also plays the trumpet and blasted out the Star Spangled Banner for a thousand cheering Democrats.

Hollywood-handsome Governor Bullock and soldier-turned-Senator John Walsh were next. GOP kingmaker Karl Rove is directing attack ads against Walsh, a former National Guard adjutant general who led combat troops in Iraq. In a speech that evening, Walsh brushed off the smears, saying they twisted the record on his campaign for better armor for soldiers, and anyway he was tough enough to take it.

Big-tent Democratic ideals abounded, with a Blackfeet victory song, a recollection of defending Jews against a Klan attack and a rousing keynote address by Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards. Politicians posed for photographs with Indians and discussed Native issues.

Walsh has been visiting tribes. He told ICTMN he’d also spoken to tribal members about the controversial satellite offices. “It’s the right thing to do,” Walsh said. “I want to improve the situation on reservations, and communicating and working together means everyone’s lot will improve. Voting rights are very important and a big part of that.”

“The Democratic party is undercutting its candidates,” said Wandering Medicine. “It’s a stumbling block to progress—but only that.”

Wandering Medicine has a plan: “The Democrats had their opportunity. Now, I’ll ask the Republicans for a commitment. Will they support us Native plaintiffs and reject those fighting the satellite offices?”

Stay tuned.

Joe Zummo

William Main, Gros Ventre former chairman of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, at the Montana Democrats annual Mansfield-Metcalf Dinner, in Helena, March 8.

This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.