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The Missing Native Vote and the Senate at Stake?

Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, is a voting rights case in Montana that Stephanie Woodard has covered extensively for ICTMN. The case focuses on satellite voting offices for reservations in the state as well as equal voting rights for American Indians. The following excerpt is from Woodard’s cover story for In These Times magazine taking a look at the constant fight for equal voting rights as the 50-year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act approaches.

If Wandering Medicine succeeds in giving Natives in Montana equal access to the polls, the impact could resonate far beyond the state borders. As of late May, a New York Times analysis suggested that Republicans had about a 40 percent chance of gaining the six seats they need to take control of the Senate. Three seats seen as potential Republican pick-ups are in Montana, Alaska and South Dakota, which have large Native minorities (8, 19 and 10 percent, respectively) that lean, sometimes heavily, Democratic. In other words, the Native vote just might determine control of the Senate.

RELATED: The Long and Winding Road: Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch

There are no nationwide Native party-registration figures, so understanding the party split among Native voters is best done by looking at areas that are almost entirely American Indian, says Four Directions consultant Bret Healy. He points to South Dakota’s Shannon County, which is nearly contiguous with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In 2012, according to state figures, 5,930 residents were registered as Democrats and 583 as Republicans.

RELATED: 7 Questions on Native Voting Rights for ACLU’s Laughlin McDonald

According to Tom Rodgers, a Washington, D.C., political strategist and member of the Blackfeet, a Montana tribe, the non-Native population in that state is divided between the two major parties, at about 45 percent each. “In between are the Indians,” says Rodgers, who notes that they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2012, the Obama-Biden ticket received more than 90 percent of the vote in two Fort Belknap precincts and five Blackfeet precincts.

Among the states with large Native populations, the tightest Senate race is in Alaska, where the Times analysis placed even odds on incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, holding on to his seat. In Montana and South Dakota, the latest polls show the Republican candidates ahead by double digits. But with five months left before the general election, nothing is certain. Healy notes that the race is shifting in South Dakota, where the general election will likely pit Democrat Rick Weiland against not only a Republican challenger, but also two former Republican office-holders running as Independents. The potential for a split conservative vote combined with high Native turnout could give Weiland a shot, says Healy.

Meanwhile, in Montana, where Democratic incumbent Sen. John Walsh is facing a challenge from U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R), Democrats are pulling out the stops to court the Native vote, including energetic campaigning on reservations. And Walsh is co-sponsoring the Native Voting Rights Act, which Alaska’s Begich introduced in the Senate on May 22.

RELATED: Campaign 2014: Montana Indians Talked, Senator John Walsh Listened

Could American Indians turn the tide for Walsh? Maybe, says Rodgers. “But we have to have access. By that, I mean satellite voting offices on the reservations, and turnout in large numbers.”

It wouldn’t be the first time American Indians decided a national election, Four Directions legal director Greg Lembrich, an attorney in New York City, notes. The Native vote has been credited with ushering Montana’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester, to victory in 2006 and 2012. In South Dakota, Democrat Tim Johnson held on to his U.S. Senate seat in 2002 by just 500-some ballots after earning 92 percent of the roughly 3,000 ballots cast on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Other Democratic senators with decisive tribal backing include Begich, Washington state’s Maria Cantwell, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. In the 2002 Arizona governor’s race, Navajo turnout helped Democrat Janet Napolitano eke out a 12,000-vote margin of victory. “Without the Native American vote, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Napolitano told the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“We’ve proven that if we get out to vote, we can make a difference,” says Fort Belknap Indian Reservation President Mark Azure. Fort Belknap is situated in north-central Montana. If candidates ignore the reservations? “They may not get in,” he says.

Read Woodard’s full story for In These Times here. Woodard is a correspondent for ICTMN and her story was reported with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.

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