It’s already time to cast ballots in the 2018 election season — a cycle with more Native Americans running for Congress or to lead state governments than ever before. The first election tests are in Idaho, South Dakota and New Mexico.
Paulette Jordan, Couer d’Alene, is looking for those early votes now in her bid to be the first Native American woman to lead a state. She is currently touring all of Idaho’s 44 counties before the May 15 Democratic Primary for governor.
Jordan told the Idaho County Free Press that she’s the only rural candidate in the race and spoke about her vision for Idaho that included resource development, better education, and clean affordable renewable energy.
As voters begin casting their ballots, Jordan is earning a lot of national media. BuzzFeed News described her candidacy this way: “In Idaho, any Democrat running is a long shot. But Paulette Jordan — who, if elected, would become the first Native American to serve as a governor — doesn’t mind the odds, and isn’t heeding calls to let an older, white, established candidate take her place.”
“She’s not intimidated by calls, such as those from her opponent, that she should bide her time,” wrote Anne Helen Petersen. Jordan answered: “People say, well, not this time. But my grandmothers were always at the forefront. They’d say, we make the difference we want to see.”
Early voting begins in Idaho’s largest county, Ada, on Monday. There is no specific early voting program for the five tribal nations in Idaho, but any resident can apply for a mailed absentee ballot next week. Idaho citizens can also register to vote at the polls to vote using a current state driver’s license.
This is particularly important for Native American youth who might not have yet registered to vote. According to data from the Native Vote project of the National Congress of American Indians, there are more than a million Native Americans who have not registered to vote, more than a third of the total population.
Primary elections are an odd fixture in American politics. Any small dedicated group of voters, such as Native Americans, are better positioned to win a primary election because the turnout is so low.
In Idaho’s last primary election only 22 percent of voters turned out for the primary — and most of them were Republican voters. There is an even smaller universe of eligible voter turnout, just under 15 percent. And remember, in Idaho, eligible voters can register to vote at the polls.
South Dakota is another state where absentee, or early voting, has begun. The primary is June 5. But South Dakota Democrats will pick their statewide candidate at the party convention on June 15 and 16. This means delegates, not voters, will pick the statewide candidates.
Tatewin Means, a former Attorney General for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is running for South Dakota Attorney General against former U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler.
This race is similar to the Jordan race in Idaho because South Dakota Democrats are faced with a choice of a picking an establishment candidate or a younger Native American woman who has the potential to bring new voters into the process.
“I am an atypical candidate,” Means told KOTA News. “I am an indigenous woman. I am a single mother and this is my first political campaign. And so that brings a fresh perspective to a criminal justice and law enforcement system that doesn’t typically have that point of view at the table.”
While the Attorney General race is not on the primary ballot, there are several races for the state legislature that are contested by Democrats.
In the district that includes Mission, State Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, Rosebud, faces a challenge from first time candidate Troy “Luke” Lunderman, who is also Rosebud.
Voters in Pine Ridge will also have to sort through challengers. There are three Oglala candidates running for a House seat in District 27, Nicole Littlewhiteman, Peri Pourier, and Margaret Ross. And two Oglala citizens are running for the state Senate, Jim Bradford, and Red Dawn Foster.
Faith Spotted Eagle, Yankton, is also in a three-way race for House seat 21. She faces Anna Kerner and Brian Jorgenson.
Spotted Eagle brings to the race an extraordinary badge: She’s the first Native American to ever receive a vote for president in the electoral college. But her legacy in Indian Country runs much deeper. She is a leader involved in many issues, ranging from culture to education, and opposition to both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
There may be no better example of a race where the outcome could be shifted by Native American voters in the primary. She told Talli Nauman of the Native Sun News that she needs a record number of Native American voters in the primary. “It should be an interesting time, but for sure we need a record turnout of registered native voters … May 21 is the deadline for registering to vote in the primaries. Anyone 18 years or older can complete a voter registration form at the county branch of the State Auditor’s office at no cost.”
Sisseton Wahpeton citizen Allison Renville is also in a three-way primary for the South Dakota Senate. She faces Thomas Bisek and Susan Wismer.
Eligible voters in South Dakota have until May 21 to register — and can vote now by absentee ballot.
“The importance of early voting isn’t really pushed out to reservations and Natives across the state. It’s a detail perhaps left out to enable stagnancy within disenfranchised communities, but were hoping to see that change this election cycle,” Renville told Indian Country Today. She said early voting makes it easier for people not to miss out on casting a ballot because of such things as a schedule conflict.
“Our state has a real chance at setting precedent for what this country’s election will look like in 2020, so it’s crucial to show the world how important the Native vote is. We are going to need everyone turning 18 by November 6th and up to register to vote, encourage everyone you know to vote for all of our candidates statewide,” she said. “Early voting is for our convenience and it’s up to us to make sure we engage and participate in every way because they’re not expecting us, together we can do this.”
Native Americans, roughly 9 percent of the population of South Dakota, are significantly underrepresented in state government.
A congressional candidate in Utah won his party’s nomination for the third district over the weekend without a primary. James Singer, Navajo, earned 77 percent of the delegate vote and will face the winner of the Republican primary in November. Singer is running in the district that includes Bear’s Ears monument as well as Ute Mountain and the Navajo Nation.
New Mexico’s voters can cast ballots beginning May 8.
Democrat Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, is one of six candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives in Albuquerque. This promises to be a close race, but Haaland easily won support from the state Democratic Party’s delegates at a pre-primary convention.
I’m the only one in my race who hasn’t written myself a big check and I’m the only candidate talking about taking big money out politics. I will not accept contributions from corporate PACs, and I will fight to overturn Citizens United. Watch our ad. @StopBigMoney #nmpol #nm01 pic.twitter.com/19hsxqaIuJ
— Deb Haaland (@Deb4CongressNM) April 27, 2018
A recent poll by Public Policy Polling showed Haaland tied for the lead with Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, at 15 percent each, while nearly half of the district voters remained undecided. This looks to be an incredibly close primary.
Haaland has already pulled off one important feat. She’s raising significant money — some $260,000 — mostly from small donors and tribal nations. If elected, she would be the first Native American woman in Congress ever. “I’m the only one in my race who hasn’t written myself a big check and I’m the only candidate talking about taking big money out politics,” she recently tweeted. “I will not accept contributions from corporate PACs, and I will fight to overturn Citizens United.”
Further south, in the second congressional district on the Republican ticket, Gavin Clarkson, Choctaw, is in a four-way contest. He’s one of the few Native Americans running on the GOP ticket who has a primary. He campaigned on support for President Donald J. Trump and “draining the swamp in Washington.” He recently told the Los Alamos Monitor Online: “I’m the only battle-trusted swamp warrior in the race.”
The New Mexico deadline for voter registration is May 8.
Two last election notes:
- Texas had an early primary, March 5 and State Rep. Mary González defeated MarySue Femath, Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo. It was Femath’s first election contest.
- Montana also votes June 5. There are a record number of Native American candidates. Follow hashtag #NativeVote18 for more election stories.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter Follow @TrahantReports
(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)