The Democratic Party’s Indian Problem (And Guess Who’s Next?)
The party did endorse an alternate resolution from its Montana Indian Democrats Council without explicitly stating support for satellite stations in the month leading up to election day on the Montana reservations in question. The resolution states, “…the Montana Democratic Party supports opportunities to improve same-day voter registration and early vote options including in-person Satellite Early-Vote Locations…” The statement then endorsed “… continued research into offering online voter registration, and even possibly early vote opportunities in the future”—types of balloting that don’t exist in Montana and are largely out of the reach of Native Americans living on reservations and on the other side of the digital divide. Speaking on background, an official close to the process explained that the references to “early voting” in these clauses were meant colloquially, not legally.
OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux co-head of Four Directions, said that made the MIDC resolution nonsensical, since it used careful legalese elsewhere—hedging by supporting “equitable,” rather than “equal,” voting, for example. Semans provided ICTMN the MIDC draft resolution that it gave Wandering Medicine the day before the meeting. The document has “equal” crossed out and the less robust term “equitable” inked in. In the final draft the party itself provided ICTMN, “equal” is gone altogether, and “equitable,” meaning mere fairness, is typed in. (Montana Democratic Party communications director Bryan Watt contacted ICTMN to note that the word “equality” appears later in the MIDC resolution. However, ICTMN observes that, again, the document hedges. The word appears within a phrase—“continuing to fight for equality in voting access”—that seems to advocate a process that may result in equality, but falls short of advocating equality itself.)
Semans said he was furious. “I wasn’t there back when the treaties were written, but now I see how it worked. Party operatives and lawyers know perfectly well what means what. They twisted the English language and the law with intent to deceive us. They thought, ‘Those dumb Indians will never figure it out!’”
A Democratic Party official called “presumptuous” ICTMN’s questions about the party’s actions and said the MIDC resolution was a strong endorsement of equality, approved unanimously by the executive board.
“MIDC is party-appointed,” objected Hawk, a former group member. “They represent the Democratic Party, not the tribes.”
“That’s what’s been happening all along,” said Wandering Medicine. “Double talk and dragging out the process.”
Main’s reaction? “They thought they could pacify us enough to get our vote.”
The elephant in the room
Voter suppression is one activity where politicians reach across the aisle in the Treasure State. Opposing the Wandering Medicine plaintiffs—from Northern Cheyenne, Fort Belknap and Crow—are 14 Republican and Democratic officials. They teamed up before the 2012 election to fight the requested reservation polling places. Their attorneys are a top-level bipartisan pair—DNC member Quintana is McCulloch’s lawyer, while South Dakota Republican Party secretary Sara Frankenstein represents the other defendants.
Keeping voting inconvenient for a minority group is a puzzling philosophical choice for the party of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. It’s not legal, according to the Justice Department. And it’s hardly strategic. Montana’s American Indians are 6.5 percent of the population and register overwhelmingly Democratic in a state of hard-fought elections and razor-thin margins. When Indian turnout was low in 2010, Democrats “took a shellacking,” and the GOP earned a supermajority in the state legislature, reported the Billings [Montana] Gazette. Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester has credited his one-percent 2012 win to Native voters. The party’s spokesman would not explain its stance on the requested satellite offices.
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