Indigenous organizers anticipated voter turnout in Montana would be low this year, and they weren’t wrong.
Groups were late to engage Native communities, advocates acknowledged. Voters on reservations said they didn’t know much about the election or who was running. Some felt ignored by candidates; others felt resentful. Many didn’t understand why people living on reservations should vote, as tribes are sovereign.
Statewide, about 60 percent of registered voters participated in the election, but in Montana’s four majority-Native American counties, turnout was significantly lower.
Turnout in Glacier, Blaine, Big Horn and Roosevelt counties was also lower than in past midterms. The 2018 election featured a high-profile and expensive Senate race, but turnout in Native counties this year was even lower than it was during the 2014 midterm, which is more comparable.
Republicans Ryan Zinke and Rep. Matt Rosendale also both out-performed past Republicans in majority-Native counties. And in three of the four majority-Native counties — which in years past have leaned Democrat — Rosendale earned more votes than his Democratic challenger, Penny Ronning.
Two groups, Western Native Voice and Red Medicine, work to specifically engage Native voters in Montana. But Ta’jin Perez, deputy director of Western Native Voice, said that’s part of the problem.
“There is a continual lack of dissemination of election information,” he said. “People cannot count on counties or the Secretary of State’s office to provide any meaningful outreach to Indian Country. It’s really startling that it comes to non-governmental organizations to get the word out.”
Glacier County, which overlaps with the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, saw an unusually low turnout this year.
Almost 14,000 people live in Glacier County, which is 65 percent Native American.
Thirty-seven percent of registered voters in the county turned out this election, which is significantly lower than in years past. In 2014, for example, 45 percent of Glacier County voters turned out.
Patrick Yawakie-Peltier is the co-founder of Red Medicine, one of the groups that aims to engage Native voters. The Montana Democratic Party contracted Red Medicine this year to organize on the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations.
Yawakie-Peltier said grassroots efforts are necessary to engage Native voters, and many organizing groups were late to start this year.
“With a lack of advocacy, you’re not going to get turnout,” he said, adding that the Democratic Party contracted Red Medicine in September.
Yawakie-Peltier said people living on the Blackfeet Reservation faced specific challenges this year, which may have contributed to the low turnout. He said the satellite polling location at Heart Butte High School “was tucked away” in an administration board room, which was hard for voters to find. The Heart Butte office was also only open for two days from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is inconvenient, especially considering many people in the rural community commute to Browning for work and return home after 5 p.m. While the main satellite polling location on Starr School Road was open on more days, Yawakie-Peltier said it also only operated from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Weather was also a factor. Glacier County was reporting among the lowest turnout in the state for absentee voters before Election Day, and on Nov. 8, it was -8 degrees in Browning, -23 with wind chill.
“There’s lack of transportation, lack of vehicles and gas is expensive,” Yawakie-Peltier said, adding that in bad weather, it could take someone an hour just to drive to the county election office. “It was just extremely difficult.”
Perez was in Browning on Election Day. He said he sensed a general lack of enthusiasm among voters, which he added can be typical when there isn’t a big presidential or Senate race on the ballot.
“People didn’t know there was an election happening,” he said. “It’s an indictment of how poorly counties are getting the word out.”
In Glacier County, Republican Ryan Zinke earned 40 percent of votes for Montana’s western congressional seat, and Democrat Monica Tranel won 57 percent. While majority-Native counties generally support Democrats, Zinke outperformed past Republican candidates in the county. In 2020, for example, Sen. Steve Daines earned 29 percent of votes in Glacier County. And in 2018, Rosendale and now-Gov. Greg Gianforte won 23 percent and 26 percent of Glacier County votes in their respective races.
Zinke said he thinks he gained support in Glacier County “because I have enormous respect for the Blackfeet Nation.”
“Blackfeet are warriors,” he said. “And I respect the warrior culture, and I worked hard on the water compact.”
The Blackfeet Water Compact was signed into law in 2016 after more than 30 years of negotiations. It resolves all claims to water rights on the reservation, constructs and restores water infrastructure and ensures access to reliable and clean water for the communities within the reservation.
Yawakie-Peltier said he thinks Zinke gained more support than past Republicans because “tribal people did not know an election was going on this cycle, and they didn’t come out in droves to vote.”
Zinke in 2017 recommended a national monument at the Badger-Two Medicine, an area of cultural significance to the Blackfeet that has long been under threat. Yawakie-Peltier said he thinks that move may have helped Zinke gain support in the Blackfeet community.
“There was a lack of education,” Yawakie-Peltier said. “People saw he tried to make the Badger-Two Medicine a national monument, but what they didn’t understand is that while he did that, he was lifting protections on the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. That education needed to happen, and it didn’t.”
In Blaine, Big Horn and Roosevelt counties, where voters have typically supported Democratic candidates, Rosendale handily defeated Ronning. In doing so, he did better than his own 2020 bid when he won the House seat for the first time.
Perez said because polling doesn’t track Native voters in Montana, it’s hard to tell why Rosendale outperformed Ronning and Buchanan in these counties. Representatives for Rosendale did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Blaine County overlaps with the Fort Belknap Reservation and is 51.5 percent Native American. About 47 percent of registered voters in the county turned out, which is similar to the 49 percent turnout in 2014.
Rosendale got 56 percent of the vote in Blaine County, while Ronning took 32 percent. Independent Gary Buchanan earned 11 percent, meaning Rosendale's two challengers combined couldn't have bested him.
In the county, Rosendale far outdid his 2020 performance when he was first elected to the office — by an 11 percent improvement.
Democrats have won in Blaine County in the past, like former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's 57 percent performance there in his 2020 U.S Senate bid when he lost by 10 percent statewide.
Big Horn County overlaps with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations and is 66.7 percent Native. About 43 percent of registered voters in the county participated in the election, which is fewer than the 48 percent turnout in 2014.
Rosendale earned 45 percent of votes in Big Horn County, and Ronning had 37 percent. Buchanan earned 16 percent of the vote.
In 2020 and 2018, Big Horn County also favored Democrats in federal elections. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester dominated with 65 percent in his 2018 re-election victory against Rosendale. Rosendale had a better showing in 2020 with 44 percent against Democrat Kathleen Williams.
Roosevelt County which has also favored Democrats in recent federal races, overlaps with the Fort Peck Reservation and is 61.3 percent Indigenous. About 44 percent of registered voters in Roosevelt County participated in the election, compared with 48 percent in 2014.
Rosendale won 54 percent of votes in Roosevelt County, improving upon his 48 percent performance in 2020. Ronning took 38 percent and Buchanan earned 6 percent.
Lance Four Star, who lives on the Fort Peck Reservation, is a Native vote coordinator for the Montana Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. This year, he was working on behalf of Democratic Incumbent Rep. Frank Smith, who is a member of Montana’s American Indian Caucus.
Smith won House District 31, which overlaps with the reservation, earning 62 percent of the votes. Because Ronning only earned 38 percent of votes in Roosevelt County, Four Star said it’s evident that some people voted Democrat for Smith but not for Ronning. In the U.S. House race, Buchanan worked hard to pull votes from the Democratic candidate in his independent bid.
Four Star said in close-knit tribal communities, connection matters. He said many people on the reservation know Smith and are familiar with his work.
Four Star also said that the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board did not endorse Ronning. He said some members feared that if they endorsed Ronning and she lost, the tribal community would face repercussions from Rosendale. He also said that some members of the council were attracted to Rosendale’s wealth and fundraising ability.
“I’m not sure if that has anything to do with how people voted,” Four Star said. “Rosendale was also listed first on the ballot, and sometimes the average person will just fill in that oval.”
This article was first published in the Missoulian.