Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Early voting begins on reservations in Montana

FIRST TIME VOTER: Abby Green, 18, with a ballot at the Blackfeet Nation satellite voting office in Browning, Montana. Photo from Western Native Voice / Facebook

How interested are you in this election? Pew Research released a poll this week that said: “Midterm elections rarely excite the general public, but 2014 is shaping up to be an especially underwhelming cycle for many Americans.” The research found that citizens are paying even less attention than four years ago. “In eight surveys this year, news interest in the midterms has never topped 16% in a given week.”

So is Indian Country a part of that trend? Or the countertrend? As I have written before this is huge: If the election is what Pew calls a “meh” election, and Indian Country turns out in greater numbers, then we will have a disproportionate impact. A little creek — and we’re a big salmon.

One reason we might be the countertrend is early voting — and that’s already starting in Indian Country. In Montana polls have opened up on the Blackfeet and Crow reservations.

Early voting is huge — especially when there are so many complications to showing up at a poll on a certain day. Perhaps you don’t have a ride that day. Or a babysitter shows up late. Or something happens at work. But an early vote makes it easy, dropping by a poll when it’s convenient. A recent study shows that early voting is growing in popularity. “The 2008 election, however, marked a turning point in the impact of early voting,” reports Project Vote. “The trend continued in the 2012 presidential election. In Florida, about 50 percent of 2012 ballots were cast early; and African-American usage of early voting has exceeded White usage in four of the last five federal elections.”

Early voting is also underway in South Dakota. And in Shannon County votes can now be cast in Pine Ridge where one ballot measure would rename the county, Oglala Lakota County. It’s a yes or no question — and is one more reason that could spur a larger voter turnout.

This week national attention focused on South Dakota because the Senate race is so close. There are four candidates on the ballot and three of them could win, depending on who votes. (Remember that fish.) It’s a three-way toss up with former Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican; Rick Weiland, the Democratic nominee, and former U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, a former Republican now turned Independent, all bunched together.

Former South Dakota Senator Jim Abourezk wrote last week = that tribes could the deciding factor, putting Weiland into office. And in a commentary this week, Chuck Trimble said that Indians should not waste their vote on “wild cards.”

“What is of the greatest importance in Washington today is partisan majority control, especially now with the hate-filled terrorism of the so-called Tea Party that has taken over control of the GOP,” Trimble said. “If the Republican Party gains control of both houses of Congress, it will be the Tea Party that is in control, because they have bullied the party and control it; there is no Republican legislator that will face them down.”

On the other hand
journalist Tim Giago wrote that Pressler should benefit from the Indian vote because only an independent can end the gridlock in Washington.

“I think Rick Weiland is a great guy, but I believe that Larry Pressler stands a better chance of winning the senate seat away from the Republican Rounds. I started this column talking about "selflessness" a true description of what Chad Taylor has done in Kansas,” Giago wrote. “I believe that the only way Democrats or Independents can stop the Mike Rounds Express is to throw all of their support behind Larry Pressler.”

Ideally of course Pressler and Weiland would come together (as happened in Alaska) and tip the scales for one or the other. It’s too late to withdraw from the ballot, so that’s not likely to happen. A second alternative is that for some sort of caucus where people agree on Weiland and Pressler. A three-way race is about as unpredictable as you can get.

So how is it even possible that people are not interested in this election? When you look at the map, the candidates, and the issues, 2014 is one of the more interesting elections ever. Stay tuned.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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