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The Missing Native Vote and the Senate at Stake?

Stephanie Woodard

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.


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