Washington voter advocacy group ramps up

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SEATTLE - Members of several Washington tribes have forged an alliance to create a distinctive voter education and lobbying group.

The organization, called Native Vote Washington, is largely aimed at registering as many Indian voters in the state as possible while also informing them about election issues. There are 109,000 eligible Native voters in Washington, which translates to about 2.5 percent of the state;s voting age population.

Organizers hope to help turn out 65 percent of those voters, or 71,000 voters, in the state's upcoming elections. They want to be able to better show with concrete numbers, rather than anecdotes, that Natives often play an important swing vote - and can change the course of elections.

''We want local, state and national leaders to take our concerns seriously,'' said Matt Tomaskin, co-chair of the group. ''If we can maintain and increase our voting numbers, we can show our impact.''

He and many Natives in the state have taken partial credit for influencing several recent close elections, including a hotly contested race for governor in 2004.

The group has informally been around since 2006, and as of April, it became a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. Organizers felt it was important to officially incorporate as a nonprofit in order to create a stable, long-lasting presence. As a result of the 501(c)(4) designation, they are able to spend a portion of their time lobbying on specific issues that they feel are important to Indians in the state.

The organization's work is already gaining national attention from Native groups that have long encouraged Native voting efforts, including the National Congress of American Indians. At a June NCAI meeting in Nevada, a group of NVWA leaders presented a one-minute live preview of what they planned to use in a series of television, radio and print messages highlighting the organization this summer and fall.

Each member spoke in his or her own tribal language about why they are casting their ballots at the polls this year.

''I vote in honor of our winged ones, the four-legged and all my brothers and sisters of Mother Earth who do not have a voice,'' said Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip, during the skit.

''I vote in honor of my children who are not old enough to vote and have a voice,'' added Tomaskin, a member of the Yakama Nation.

''I vote in honor of my grandmother whose name I carry,'' said Deborah Parker, also Tulalip. ''I want her voice to be heard for generations to come.''

Tomaskin explained that the overall message of the skit and the organization itself is to ''educate, activate and empower.''

''We want to empower tribal people not only locally, but also regionally and nationally,'' he said. As part of its mission, NVWA is encouraging more Native people to run for local, state and national elections.

Another top goal of the group is to create a Native voter database to help make it easier to learn where greater get-out-the-vote efforts are necessary and to help campaigns better center their attention on Indian concerns. For that effort, the group has asked all 29 tribes in the state to identify a Native vote coordinator.

Sheldon, also a co-chair of the group, explained that the Native vote coordinators will work directly with NVWA to ensure their communities are getting all the resources they need to do appropriate outreach.

''We do not need outside people to come in and tell our communities how to vote and why to vote,'' Sheldon said. ''We have the ability to do it ourselves. We know what works and what doesn't in our communities; and we know tribal people do not appreciate strangers coming to their door and lecturing them on civic participation.''

The organization plans to sponsor a ''train the trainer'' workshop July 10 at the Tulalip Tribes, which will be free to all tribal Native vote coordinators and to individuals who want to ensure more Indians vote this election season.

One of the biggest challenges organizers have found is coordinating across tribes to ensure that every tribal interest is covered. Smaller tribes have often been more difficult to reach out to, and not all tribal leaders see the benefit of joining forces to try to get out the Native vote.

But NVWA members say the most important aspect of what they're doing is having a Native presence on the ground in the state at all times, so that tribes and individuals feel the consistency.

''A lot of times, you have campaigns come into the state, focus on Native issues, and then they're gone after the election,'' Tomaskin said. ''We aren't like that. We're based here, and people can always come to us.''

Fundraising has also been a challenge. Chris Kearns, a NVWA board member, said that the Tulalip Tribes, as well as the Washington Indian Gaming Association, have already made small donations, but the organization is always looking for more assistance to carry out its goals. The group has also begun selling T-shirts to raise funds to purchase more promotional materials, like buttons and bumper stickers.

Organizers ultimately hope to raise enough funds to pay for a ''Rock the Rez'' RV tour in August, during which the group will spread its message throughout the state.

For more information, visit www.nativevotewa.org.