Native Americans see their vote clout mount

Washington is among the states in which American Indian voters could swing an election, according to the National Congress of American Indians, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

This state will be targeted with extra content on NativeVote.org, a 4-year-old Web site NCAI plans to relaunch Friday. The site will feature information about national and local candidates and links for online voter registration.

“We know what our native vote effort did in 2004 and 2006,” NCAI executive director Jacqueline Johnson said. “It created a movement like you wouldn’t believe.”

For many years, tribal members worried that registering to vote through a non-Indian government could have negative consequences, according to a report released by the NCAI after its 2004 voting campaign. That year, thanks in part to the NCAI’s campaign, Indian voter registration increased by between 50 and 150 percent around the country. Close races in Washington and South Dakota were determined by the participation of tribal members, according to the report.

It’s difficult to know how many Washington tribal members are registered to vote because they don’t all live on reservations. The data that is available suggests tribal members are becoming more politically engaged, Johnson said.

Four years ago, 70 percent of the Tulalip Tribes’ 1,022 registered voters cast ballots, according to NCAI statistics.

“Tribes in Washington tend to be very politically engaged,” Johnson said. “They’re very organized, and the population is significant enough that it makes a difference.”

Like many voters, Indians felt disenfranchised, like their votes didn’t count, Tulalip tribal member John McCoy said. McCoy is a state representative, and also general manager of Quil Ceda Village, the tribes’ retail and casino complex. When the NCAI began courting them to use a privilege afforded to all U.S. citizens, that changed, he said.

It also helped that Indian voters saw that their ballots in 2000 helped Democrat Maria Cantwell defeat incumbent U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican who backed initiatives that imperiled tribal sovereignty. That victory was examined in “Native Vote,” a book published last year that suggests that Indian voters are only beginning to realize their political power.

Teresa Sheldon, who is handling this year’s voting effort for the Tulalip Tribes, was not approved by a tribal spokesman to speak to The Herald in time for this article.

In past years, the Tulalip Tribes rented limousines to escort tribal members to vote. Other tribes raffled off vacations or offered feasts for voters.

“We don’t have enough votes to carry a candidate, but we have enough votes to influence an outcome,” McCoy said. “That’s all we’re trying to do here.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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