The good fight 

Volunteers work to get out the tribal vote

“There’s sort of a message going out that the Indian vote doesn’t matter,” says Jackie Ladner, chairman of the Lake County Democrats, sitting in a circle of volunteers in the Ronan office of Get Out the Vote, a group funded by grants through the Confederated Salish & Kootenai tribes and Salish Kootenai College (SKC). “But it does matter,” Ladner says. “Especially in a state the size of Montana; you can easily win by one vote here.”

Ladner was one of 10 volunteers discussing voter turnout initiatives at 9 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 24. Adjacent to her sat Amy Croover, a young SKC student who wore an “I’m Indian and I vote” button.

Historically, American Indians have had low voter turnout. Among the Salish-Kootenai, says Ruth Quequesah, an analyst in the tribal office of support services, approximately 3,200 tribal members are of voting age, “but when we look at the list of who’s voting, we only see about 1,400 tribal names on there.”

Yet in recent elections, the Indian voting bloc—representing 1.5 percent of the national population—has begun to exhibit some sway. The tribal role was crucial in defeating Washington Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000 and electing South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002.

According to the 2000 census, Indians account for 6.2 percent of Montana’s population, or 7.4 percent if one includes citizens of partial Native American heritage, making the group the largest minority in the state.

Montana elected seven Indian legislators in 2000—a number that has held steady since—and the strength of the Indian vote showed particularly in electing tribal member Joey Jayne to represent House District 73 over incumbent Rick Jore. Jore felt the wrath of the Indian vote after telling the Missoulian in 1998 that tribal sovereignty “flies in the face of everything this country is all about.” Incidentally, in August, President Bush made a similar gaffe when, in a meeting with minority journalists, he described sovereignty as something that had been “given” to the tribes. Both Bush and Kerry are running Indian-language ads in the battleground state of New Mexico, where there remains the possibility that the presidential race could be decided by the Navajo.

Montana remains relatively sidelined on the national political scene, but Quequesah says she thinks Indian voting is moving in the right direction, noting that Dennis Kucinich received about 20 percent of the overall vote in Lake County’s Democratic primary—a fact she attributes directly to Kucinich’s visit with the tribes.

Ladner explains that she attends Get out the Vote gatherings as a volunteer, not in her official capacity with the Lake County Democrats. The distinction is relevant because Get out the Vote is technically nonpartisan, although you wouldn’t know it from the literature available, all of which comes from Democratic candidates, with the exception of Secretary of State Bob Brown.

Deb Clairmont, an environmental sciences student at SKC and Get out the Vote organizer, explains that the group is open to anyone, but so far only Democratic candidates have chosen to take advantage of it.

The effort is a step forward from years past, when Clairmont and Anita Big Spring, another organizer, fueled voting efforts on their own, spreading their message from a car, via megaphone, with dogs chasing after their vehicle.

This year, however, the effort has blossomed from an initial three volunteers to 50.

“They’re really coming out of the wall now,” Big Spring says, before explaining the group’s strategy in a phone interview. “From now until Oct. 4, it’s registering voters and getting out voter education on the HAVA [Help America Vote Act] rules and letting people know that they don’t need a utility bill if they have a tribal I.D. and stuff like that,” she says. “Then from Oct. 4 to Nov. 4, we have a donor who’s donating a van that is wheelchair-accessible for us to go out to some of the rural communities like Elmo, where many of the Kootenai people live, and do a bus drive down to the county courthouse every day so that those people can vote.”

On election day, Get out the Vote will have volunteers bring voter rolls back to the group’s phone bank, Big Spring says, so that volunteers can call those who haven’t voted to see if they need a ride.

Already, the group has made headway in its registration efforts. After the morning meeting at Get out the Vote headquarters in Ronan, two volunteers—Amy Croover and Jennifer Acevedo—registered SKC students to vote. Their timing was perfect, as most of the students were already registering for fall classes anyway. From Wednesday, Sept. 22, through Friday, Sept. 24, volunteers registered approximately 120 new students, they say.

That’s important, Clairmont says, because “a lot of SKC students are from other tribes, and they don’t always know where they can vote.” Volunteers are able to tell such students that they may re-register at their new address or request an absentee ballot from their home area.

Clairmont and Big Spring plan to man a table of their own at the local Wal-Mart the weekend of Oct. 2–3. They say the issues they’ve found most resonant in talking with Indian voters are education, the environment and health care. Both are concerned about new state and federal regulations that they think may make it more difficult to get out the Indian vote.

In 2003, the Montana Legislature implemented law 13-13-213, says Alan Miller, an elections specialist in the secretary of state’s office, which made it illegal for undesignated third parties to collect and return absentee ballots—effectively outlawing any mass voting movement aimed at those who might not vote without an easy, one-step opportunity at home.

“Some of these elderly people are physically limited to even go check their mailbox,” Big Spring says, adding that her first-hand experience tells her the new requirement is going to bump some citizens out of the democratic process.

“It should be so easy to vote,” she says. “We were just getting people used to voting, and now they’re making it harder. That really upsets me.”

Miller says the law was passed in response to complaints from Yellowstone County citizens that third parties convinced them to fill out forms without adequately informing them that they were requesting absentee ballots.

Aside from this state law, tribal voting activists also point out that the federal HAVA requires new voters who return absentee ballots to include a copy of identification, which may be a problem for some without access to copy machines.

Despite such difficulties, Get out the Vote remains positive, because, as Anita Big Spring says, “You never give up the fight. You just never do that.” mike@missoulanews.com

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