Saturday, August 30, 2008

American Indian Vote Will Be a Factor in Several Swing States

American Indian Vote Will Be a Factor in Several Swing States
By Michael Drudge

Across the center of the United States, from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, efforts are under way to register and educate American Indian voters for the November general election.

The indigenous peoples of the United States number about 3 million, or 1 percent of the U.S. population. But in some states they represent a significant voting bloc. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Indians make up 4.5 percent of the vote in Arizona, 4.8 percent in North Dakota, 6.4 percent in Montana, 7.7 percent in Oklahoma, 8.5 percent in South Dakota and almost 10 percent in New Mexico.

In this decade, American Indians have made the difference in electing two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. In South Dakota in 2002, Senator Tim Johnson won by 524 votes over Republican challenger John Thune, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation provided Johnson's victory margin. In 2006, Democratic challenger Jon Tester got most of the American Indian vote in Montana and defeated Republican incumbent Senator Conrad Burns.

The electoral clout of American Indians is a relatively new phenomenon in U.S. history.

From the earliest days of the republic, the Indian tribes were considered distinct nations, and ineligible for the rights and privileges bestowed on U.S. citizens under the Constitution. As such, they also were exempt from paying taxes.

In an 1823 ruling, Chancellor James Kent of the New York Court of Errors wrote: "Though born within our territorial limits, the Indians are considered as born under the jurisdiction of their tribes. They belong, by birth, to their own tribes, and these tribes are placed under our protection and dependent upon us; but we still recognize them as national communities."

This concept came to be known as "nations within a nation," and it generally regulated relations between Indian tribes and the American government into the 20th century.

After World War I, Congress passed legislation offering citizenship to Indian military veterans who had an honorable discharge. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act granting citizenship to all Indians born within U.S. territorial boundaries. The law also provided that Indians would retain their tribal property rights.

Despite this federal law, states controlled voting rights, and several states continued to deny those rights to American Indians. Complicating matters, several tribes considered the proffered U.S. citizenship a trap that would lead to taxation of their property and loss of tribal lands.

Following World War II, several decades of court rulings and legal changes eventually guaranteed American Indians full civil liberties, including the right to vote.


Heading the Indian voter registration drive in 2008 is the Washington-based National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

"We have to ramp up our voter participation initiative in 2008," said Joe A. Garcia, president of the nonpartisan NCAI. "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."

The Indigenous Democratic Network of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is recruiting candidates for the Democratic Party and running voter education seminars. Kalyn Free, president of the network, says Democrats and Republicans cannot afford to ignore Indian voters.

"I believe the Indian vote will be decisive in this presidential election," Free said.

"When you look at the new West, all eyes are on New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. Those are states that have significant Indian populations and when the difference between winning and losing comes down to a few votes, 1 or 2 percent can be the difference. And so I firmly believe that the next president of the United States will be there with the power of the Indian vote. It's a vote that clearly should not be taken for granted by either party."

In the 2008 presidential race, Indian issues are getting the attention of the major parties' candidates.

Republican John McCain has decades of experience with Indian concerns as a senator from Arizona, which is home to 15 Indian reservations. He serves on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

In a position paper on Native American policy, McCain promises to protect "tribal sovereignty and the unique government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes." He emphasizes stronger law enforcement, economic development and expanded health care benefits on Indian reservations.

Democrat Barack Obama also promises respect for tribal sovereignty, and would allocate more money for Indian health care. Also, he says he would appoint a policy adviser on American Indian affairs to his senior White House staff.

During a campaign appearance in Wyoming, Obama said: "Native Americans are at the bottom of every social indicator: life expectancy, infant mortality, substance abuse, unemployment, suicide. It is heartbreaking. It is rooted in our tragic past, and that's why we have a special obligation to deal with it now."

As American Indians mobilize to vote, they will remember the candidates' promises; after the election, they will hold the victors accountable.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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