The year of the Native voter?

Only if more folks register and then show up at the polls

News From Indian Country

Could this be the year of the Native voter? That’s a tall order for a population that’s less than one percent of the country. But American Indians were key contributors to winning coalitions in Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana two years ago and there is the potential to do even better this time around.

Three things have to happen first, though. There must be candidates who are inspirational. Next, there must be organization and money. And, third, American Indians and Alaska Natives have to actually vote.

Step one is on target. There are already more high profile candidates for office in 2014 than in any election I can recall. For example, former Colville tribal chairman Joe Pakootas is running against Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers in Washington state. This is a tough race, but Pakootas has a great election narrative: How he turned around a money-losing tribal enterprise and made it profitable, creating jobs along the way.

The candidacy of Byron Mallott for governor of Alaska has to be at the top of any list. Mallott has the ideal resume. He’s a member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, and a clan leader of the Kwaashk’i Kwáan of the Raven people. He has worked in state government and as the chief executive of Sealaska corporation. Mallott was mayor of two towns including Juneau, the state capital.

Mallott’s path to the Democratic Party nomination is clear so he will face incumbent, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.

Parnell, it seems, has gone out of his way to be on the other side of Alaska Native issues. The governor rejected Medicaid expansion, saying the federal Indian Health Service is good enough health care access for Alaska Natives. This is absurd. There is not enough money in the Indian health system. But at the same time he tells the federal government to cover health care for Alaska Natives, the governor demands sovereignty over subsistence hunting and fishing asking for a Supreme Court review of the Katie John case.

This set of facts ought to be enough to motivate Alaska Native voters.

But that requires follow through on the next two steps, organization (including money) and then actual voting. I looked at the last election, precinct by precinct, and turnout by Alaska Natives in villages ranged from a low of 25 percent to 71 percent. It was mostly lower (with a couple of exceptions) than the statewide turnout and by a wide margin, ten, twenty and even thirty points.

It’s these kind of numbers that led the National Congress of American Indians in 2012 to declare a “civic emergency” regarding voter registration.

The NCAI report calls for voter registration at Indian health facilities. This is the perfect solution for the 2014 election: Encourage people to sign up for health insurance and register to vote at the same time. Imagine how the Alaska’s politics would be if the Alaska Native voter registration was higher. (New Mexico has the highest percentage of Native American voters at 77 percent.)  Alaska Natives could have a bigger share of the electorate than in any other state. Alaska has extraordinary challenges that limit Native voting. The logistics of a high turnout election are daunting, much more complex than in any other part of the country, and state institutions continues to depress turnout and throw up barriers to limit Alaska Native voters. That’s why the payoff could be that much sweeter. Alaska Natives could the key bloc that elects governors, senators, and, federal representatives, pretty much determining the state’s future.

So here’s the thing: This will be a be low turnout election anyway. Americans get excited over presidential elections and then fade into the background two years later. Indian Country is the same. We vote in presidential years, but there is even much more potential to swing elections two years later. That time is now.

So that means if Indian Country does get organized, and folks actually vote, then the power of that Native vote is amplified. There is time to make 2014 the year of the Native voter.

Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Comment on Facebook at: