Mark Trahant: Turn to Montana for proof that Native votes matter

Jason Smith, left, the chairman of the Montana Indian Democrats Council, and Gov. Steve Bullock (D) talk about the importance of Native voters. Photo by Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

#NativeVote16 – Montana Democrats say ‘margin of victory’ is Indian Country
Doubts about voting? Just think, Montana
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

HELENA — When someone tells you that your vote doesn’t matter, quietly say, “Montana.” Or if someone says that politicians don’t listen and that nothing will change, smile, and then say “Montana.” And, when you want proof that the Native vote works, evidence can be found in Montana.

American Indian voters are registered to vote in Montana at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. And, more important, especially during presidential years, Native American voters are more likely to turnout and vote.

Montana Democrats have figured this out and acknowledge that the Native vote is the key to their success as a party, in recent elections winning five of the six statewide offices.

At a meeting Saturday of the Montana Indian Democrats Council, candidates ranging from governor to state auditor showed up to make their pitch. And it was not just about winning the election ahead, but it’s about making certain that the state’s policies align to serve Native communities.

Gov. Steve Bullock pointed out that the expansion of Medicaid in Montana never would have happened without the Native vote. Seventy-thousand people are now eligible for Medicaid insurance, including some 15,000 Native Americans. That’s important because Native patients with insurance have access to medical care that would not be immediately available through Indian Health Service funding alone. He also cited the success of a new water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He said he has appointed more Native Americans to state jobs, boards and commissions, and praised the idea of regular, government-to-government communications between tribes and the state of Montana.

But while policy remains the end goal, Saturday’s meeting was about politics. Bullock recalled a Native community that voted for him something like 213 to zero. “I might have made up that number,” he joked. “But it was was an awful lot to none.”

“It’s really critical that we have a proactive Native vote,” said Sen. Jon Tester, who is not up for election this year. “We know you are on our side, but we need tribal council endorsements because when it comes to national fundraising it helps a lot.”

Interviewing Democratic Congressional candidate Denise Juneau for an upcoming TrahantReports profile. Photo by Jaynie Parrish

Denise Juneau is running for Montana’s only congressional seat. “We get one voice for one million Montanans. And that voice ought to be someone who really reflects our population,” she said. “I am going to be heavily committed to making sure the Native vote program happens. I know that when Indian Country votes, Democrats win. I need them to vote in humongous numbers.”

If she wins, Juneau would be the first American Indian woman to serve in Congress. Ever.

Juneau is a Mandan Hidatsa member and of Blackfeet descent. She grew up in Browning. She currently is the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and has won two statewide offices. In that post, her initiative, Graduation Matters, has helped raise the state’s high school graduation rate from 80 percent to 86 percent.

She said she will visit each of the state’s reservation communities next month making sure that people are registered to vote. “It’s winnable and the margin of victory can be Indian Country.”

Of course it’s one thing for politicians to make a pitch on Indian issues to a group as the Montana Indian Democrats Council. That sort of thing happens in virtually every state. But what makes Montana unique is that same message is carried to every forum, whether or not Indians are present.

I heard Gov. Bullock speak to a group of academics on Friday in Missoula and some of the first words out of his mouth were about the importance of government-to-government relations with tribes and why Native voices are so important to the state. Same message at a meeting of Young Democrats in Helena.

And Saturday night at the Democratic Party’s Mansfield-Metcalf dinner, several state officials, legislators, and party activists referenced the importance of Native people to the state’s future. The Democrat’s message in Montana is clear: Native votes matter.

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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