Democrat Gary McDowell (left) and Republican Dan Benishek are vying for the U.S. House of Representatives seat for District 1. Benishek is the incumbent.

Native Vote Could Sway National and Local Elections in Michigan

Alysa Landry
10/26/12

Environmental concerns, border control and other state and national issues are among the Election Day hot topics for Michigan’s Native population.

Michigan is one of a handful of states where American Indian votes can sway elections. Michigan, along with Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota and Wisconsin, was “marked by fast growth and by relatively high and growing percentages of minority voters,” in an economic report on the 2012 Presidential Election published by the Center for American Progress.

Michigan also is one of 13 states where Native votes could prove to be decisive, according to Native Vote 2012, a project of the National Congress of American Indians.

To the 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, that means voter registration and turnout is paramount, said Jennifer Misegan, a Native Vote coordinator and member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

“We definitely have the ability to make a difference in statewide elections, not to mention what an impact we can have on local elections as well,” she said.

American Indians make up 1.4 percent of the state population. In addition to the federally recognized tribes, the state is also home to members of many other tribes, said Glen Zaring, spokesman for the Little River Band of Odawa Indians. He estimates the total American Indian population in the state at 100,000.

“If we even got half of the 100,000 people to vote, we would have a voice out there,” he said.

Michigan faces a broad range of unique challenges, making it a battleground state in national politics. Voters supported Democratic presidential candidates five times in the last 10 elections. Democratic victories in Michigan came in the last five consecutive elections—Barack Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1996 and 1992.

U.S. House of Representatives seats in all 14 of Michigan’s congressional districts are up for grabs this year. With redistricting changes in place, some incumbents are running for seats in new districts. The state’s 15th district was eliminated, meaning Michigan may lose a Democrat in Congress.

The incumbents are the candidates to watch this year, Zaring said. Dan Benishek, Republican incumbent for District 1, likely has the most influence on Indian country in the state.

Benishek’s district encompasses the northern part of the state and the Upper Peninsula, home to the largest concentration of tribes. Benishek is running against Democratic competitor Gary McDowell, a three-term state representative.

“That will be an interesting race,” Zaring said. “That’s one Indian tribes are watching.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, also is running for re-election, against Republican Pete Houkstra, for another six-year term.

Some of the issues facing all Michigan voters this election year are labor unions, a growing minority population, health care and high rates of unemployment, poverty and foreclosure. American Indian voters are expected to watch these issues, along with additional topics that are unique to the Native view.

“Environmental issues will be the most critical issues because of our ties to the land, and to the Great Lakes especially,” Zaring said. “A number of us are fishing tribes, so we are worried not only about the health of the lakes, but the spiritual ties to them, as well.”

Many health-related issues regarding the Great Lakes stem from invasion by non-indigenous species of plants and animals. The Great Lakes, recognized culturally and spiritually by American Indian tribes, are one of Michigan’s greatest assets. Invasive species can impact tourism, recreation, economy of water-based businesses and public health. Measures to combat these issues often become political, Zaring said.

Tribes also are watching the mining industry and the national border separating Michigan and Canada.

“Many of our people, tribes and people, are in two different countries,” Zaring said. “The cross-border issues and identification issues in crossing the borders, those are always of interest to us.”

Laws requiring voters to present identification at the polls may affect some tribal members who lack driver’s licenses or other forms of ID, Misegan said, though no instances have yet been reported.

Population varies widely among Michigan tribes, from more than 40,000 people in the largest tribes to a few hundred members in the smallest, said Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan, a nonprofit organization serving all 12 federally recognized tribes.

The average population is 3,000 to 4,000, he said, but when it comes to elections, every eligible vote counts.

“We’re working to encourage all our tribal members to register to vote,” Ettawageshik said.

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