How our votes in an election could actually increase Native representation

Ruth Buffalo (Campaign photo)

ICT editorial team

Primary results in North Dakota; A look at "first past the post" elections #NativeVote18

Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

Remember this phrase: First past the post. We will get back to that after the news.

Most of the #NativeVote18 candidates running in primary elections Tuesday were unopposed and will move on to the ballot come November.

Ruth Buffalo, running in Fargo, North Dakota, will be one of two Democratic-Nonpartisan League nominees for the urban seat. She posted on Facebook: “I was the top Dem-NPL vote getter for the House of Representatives in District 27. I’m looking forward to speaking with all District 27 residents in the coming months.” (A correction: Two candidates moved forward, so this was not a competitive race in the primary as we reported.)

When she says “all” that’s a word to be taken seriously. Buffalo, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, is one hard working politician. Two years ago she criss-crossed the state in a bid for the Insurance Commissioner. She was unsuccessful, but earned more votes than any other statewide Democrat in a Republican landslide year. This fall her Fargo district will be tough competition. It’s been represented by a Republican and in the primary the two Republican candidates both had more votes than either Buffalo or her D-NPL colleague.

North Dakota ought to have more Native American representation; it’s one of the top ten states for Native residents at 5.4 percent. Yet the representation amounts to one Democrat, Sen. Richard Marcellais, Turtle Mountain, and Rep. Wayne Trottier, a Republican, and a Standing Rock citizen. (If you are doing the math, that’s 1.4 percent.)

It’s always interesting to look at North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Why are the Dakotas so underrepresented while the Montana legislature has almost the same representation as it does in the population? All three states have rebukes for failing to protect Native voting. Most recently North Dakota tried to block a court ruling on the state’s discriminatory voter ID law. (And just before an election.) As the Native American Rights Fund said: Changing the rules on the eve of the election would only have sowed confusion about what rules apply.”

The practical answer is that Montana has better districts. Montana’s legislative districts are drawn by a five-member independent commission. One of that commission’s tasks is to make sure that Native Americans have adequate representation. On the other hand North Dakota’s legislature draws its own district maps. Same in South Dakota.

Remember first past the post? This is a unique feature of American elections. Basically it means drawing narrow districts, then allowing multiple candidates (more than just Democrats and Republicans) and in November the winning candidate could take office with a minority of votes, somewhere less than 49 percent.

There are a couple of ways to fix this problem. One way is a runoff election. In most countries around the world, the election between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump would not have ended last November. Remember Trump had only 46 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 48 percent. (We won’t get into the electoral college this time.) So there would have been a runoff, a second election, so that a majority of voters, 50-percent-plus-one, would have decided the outcome. The district system, the one used to elect members of Congress, often makes that problem worse. It’s common for elections to be won by less than fifty percent. Whichever candidate is first past the post, wins.

That brings us to Tuesday. Voters in Maine are trying to change that. This election uses a system called Ranked Choice Voting or instant runoff. It works like this: If a candidate gets a majority, that’s enough. But if no candidate reaches that mark, then the last place candidates’ votes are redistributed to other candidates, and that’s done until there is a majority. (Why this method? It’s cheaper than a second election.)

The governor (who won a minority election) calls this ranked choice voting the “most horrific thing in the world.” Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, told TV station WCSH that he would probably not certify this election. He said, “I will leave it up to the courts to decide."

But Maine's voters did weigh in. The Bangor Daily News said voters affirmed the system with a solid 55 percent, yes. That’s a majority that would not require a second round in any system.

Henry John Bear, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, who is running for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District as a Green Party member will face the instant runoff in November (unless, as the governor wants, a court steps in).

Instant Runoffs are part of a school of thought that demands proportionate representative; Most elections in the U.S. are not that. The minority often wins. And, in a proportional system, Indian Country could gain seats in all levels of government.

As Amber Ebarb pointed out last week at the National Congress of American Indians Mid Year meeting, if elections were proportional there would be at least two Native Americans in the Senate, and seven members of the House.

And the North Dakota legislature would have at least eight members. Same in South Dakota. Proportional.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

(The National Congress of American Indians owns Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)