Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton battle in New York

Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, right, meets with Democratic president candidate Bernie Sanders in New York City, New York, on April 12, 2016, as leaders of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe look on. Photo from Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe / Facebook

#NativeVote16 – Huge New York crowds hear Bernie Sanders, but can they vote?
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

A friend writes from time to time and makes the case against Native Americans voting. One of the arguments is that “when you vote, you willingly and voluntarily abandon your nation’s sovereignty. And also because Indian as well as non-Indian votes do not matter one bit in presidential elections.”

And the evidence cited is a Princeton study that looks at how business, economic elites, and other organized groups are determining the outcome of issues, not voters.

That study is exactly right. But you don’t need to look at the research. Just look at the New York primary that’s ahead next week.

Some 30,000 people packed into New York City’s Washington Square Park to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders speak on Wednesday night. And, as Sanders has done since Iowa, he met with Native people, including those from the Mohawk and Onondaga Nations. There was a rally at the American Indian Community House featuring author Gyasi Ross.

I can see young people getting excited, #feelingthebern, and then come Tuesday will find out they cannot vote. New York has a closed primary. Voters had to change party affiliation last October and register by March in order to participate. (The same rules tripped up the children of Donald Trump who cannot vote in the Republican primary.) That’s important because one of the strengths of Sanders’ campaign is his appeal to independents. That group (which includes me) cannot vote in a closed primary.

The fact is Hillary Clinton has a structural advantage in New York (the state that sent her to the Senate). She has her voters. But she also has an issue with the way New York votes; it’s mostly cast on election day. Absentee voting is difficult.

Of course it’s all unfair. But that’s my point. Our entire system from the nomination process to the Electoral College is more convoluted than even our tax system. (Previous: America and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad election)

A man listens as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in New York City, New York, on April 14, 2016. Photo from Facebook

So in New York this likely benefits Clinton. Sure, Sanders could still win the day, but how many delegates will he earn? It will only produce more evidence that the vote itself is illogical.

Same goes for the many caucus states where people who were independent, traveling, working, sick, or perhaps forgot, could not vote. You had to show up at a certain time and vote in public. No secret ballots allowed.

Instead of making voting easy we make it harder. Three trends are making this worse: Restrictive laws that discourage participation, such as onerous voting ID requirements; unlimited campaign spending; and, most important, a refusal to invest in democracy and rethink the system itself.

This week for example I wrote about three statewide Native candidates in North Dakota. Great. That’s the whole theme of my blog. But North Dakota also happens to be one of those states with restrictive voting ID requirements.

In January the Native American Rights Fund filed a suit under the Voting Rights Act challenging the state’s law because “On January 20, 2016, seven Native Americans from North Dakota filed suit under the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. and North Dakota Constitutions challenging North Dakota’s recently enacted voter ID law on the grounds it disproportionately burdens Native Americans and denies qualified voters the right to vote.”

One significant problem across Indian Country is the lack of a “physical” address. Many reservation residents don’t live on a street with a name. The irony was that North Dakota used to be one of the best places to vote. “Thus, in both the primary and general election in 2014, many qualified North Dakota Native American voters were disenfranchised because their IDs did not list their residential address,” according to the lawsuit.

Sen. Sanders talks often about the second trend, the obscene amount of spending by wealthy people, interest groups, and corporations.

But the problem with our democracy far bigger than that. We have a structural imbalance and the country’s institutions from Congress to state governments are unwilling to spend the money to fix it. We saw that in Arizona. Maricopa Country reduced the number of polling places to save money. The result was a mess. And the Department of Justice is now investigating.

But the issue is not limited to that county or even Arizona. We need to rethink elections and invest in a better mechanism that makes certain that every citizen has the opportunity to participate.

On my list: Rethink the primaries. Should parties decide or voters? What process gives everyone a say? Will a vote count equally in California or Wyoming? Or better: Indian Country?

We must rethink how we elect Congress. It’s makeup does not reflect the country, either in demographics or ideology. We have too many safe districts that flatten our discourse. (Previous: Indigenous voices are needed to make U.S. a stronger democracy)

And we need to spend enough money to make sure that our votes are counted. Every vote.

And as for the Electoral College? Hell no.

The system is rigged. So why not just give up and not vote? Because then it never will change for the better. Democracies around the world have figured out smarter methods for giving their citizens a say, including Native voters. It’s time to give democracy a try.

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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