Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Let's make sure Native votes matter in the election

Sarah LilRedFeather wonders whether Native voices are being heard in the 2016 presidential election. Photo by Sarah LilRedFeather / Twitter

#NativeVote16 – Another election day. Who does Indian Country back?
By Mark Trahant

It’s Super Tuesday. Voters are going to the polls in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. Plus Republicans in Alaska and Democrats in Colorado.

There are also primary contests for voters overseas and American Samoa.

The idea of a primary election is a recent invention. Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1968 without winning a single primary. Walter Mondale and Fred Harris led an effort at the party convention in Chicago to make that happen even though Gene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy had won state primary votes (Kennedy, of course, had been assassinated before the convention.)

The back room deals at the convention were ugly and it led to the modern primary and caucus system.

When I was an editorial page editor I did not like the taxpayers paying for party primary elections. I thought they ought to be open contests, such as Washington state’s top two primary, or completely private party affairs. In a top two primary, the top two finishers move on to the November ballot no matter which party they represent. So in most cases it could a Democrat versus a Republican in November. But not always. It could be a socialist versus a conservative or even two Democrats. It’s who ever wins first and second.

What that system work in a presidential election? I doubt it. This year is a good example of why that’s not so good an idea; there would be less choice, not more. But we do need to rethink how we elect presidents and come up with a mechanism that makes certain that more than half of the country is on board with the winning candidate. We need more experiments in democracy.

Precincts, please. Indian Country’s primary map. Image from Bureau of Indian Affairs

Like a lot of my readers I have been wondering who Indian Country really supports in the election. There are pockets of Native Republicans who will be voting today in Oklahoma’s primary and Alaska’s caucus. And quite a few Native Democrats, especially in Oklahoma and Minnesota. So is there a way to know who earns the votes from Indian Country?

I wish. The data is not there. We know Bernie Sanders won one precinct on Iowa’s only reservation. We know that Hillary Clinton won the delegate rich Walker River Paiute Reservation in Iowa. Sanders won Duck Valley but that was only one delegate to the county convention. (Walker River has an advantage because the county is small and so Republican, while Elko County is considerably larger.) But there is not enough data to know which candidate “won” Indian Country in Nevada. In Elko County, for example, the geography of the election map just doesn’t match that of tribal boundaries.

So here is my idea (too late for this cycle): What if Indian Country had its own primary? If there were money to pay for this tribal election offices could manage the voting. Perhaps there could be a secondary system set up to count votes from urban populations.

Think about it: There are primary elections for overseas voters. Sanders won the Super Tuesday vote from New Zealand 21 to 6. And voters in Guam will be casting their ballots today. These elections are not just for fun; delegates are at stake. There is no reason Indian Country cannot get the same treatment.

I especially like the idea of tribal voters going first. First Nations … first in the nation.

Remember primary elections and caucuses are party affairs. Democrats and Republicans could just decide that #NativeVotesMatter and make it so.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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