Of Elephants, Donkeys and Hippos…The Dung in America’s Elections

By Elaine Willman

What do you get with cross-corruption of the elephants and donkeys? A massive Hippopotamus to squash your vote and mine.

How can this happen? Congress intentionally set up a system to better finance and control elections. Let me explain the congressional mechanics of the system that will flourish in the 2014 and 2016 elections unless voters take it down, in the same manner that voters dismantled the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which was to be a more manageable new voter pool for the donkeys and elephants.

The financial instrument was sired by Senator John McCain who sponsored the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 to create a separate, tax-exempt monopoly that would soon pump billions back into both political parties. The current annual honeypot to play with here is over $20 billion. To ensure that the flow of money gets back to Congress the Federal Election Commission determined in May 2005 that tribal governments are not governments, and therefore could freely participate in and contribute funds to political parties, incumbents or candidates. No other governments may write a check to a political party or candidate, but hey—Congress who giveth the monopoly to tribal governments must benefit from the profits.

To ensure that such funds are undisclosed, Senator McCain, also the sire of the infamous 2002 McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act diligently, even belligerently refused to require that tribal governments disclose, as must all other contributors, financial contributions to political parties or election candidates. Pretty neat. Create the separate tax-exempt monopoly, spread it across hundreds of private tribal governments who are not answerable to American voters, and then permit them, as the only governments allowed to participate in America’s elections without transparency…and Voila! In California alone, tribal political influence has overtaken even the labor unions. I am not speaking of the full and necessary right of every individual American Indians citizen to vote. I am speaking only of the unregulated participation of separate tribal governments in America’s elections.

More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court partially improved the First Amendment playing field for campaign activities when it ruled in a 2010 case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by non-profit organizations. The principles articulated by the Supreme Court in the case have also been extended to corporations, labor unions and other associations. The Citizens United case opened a larger voice for countering the giant tribal monies flowing into federal and state elections.  The case did not involve the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties, which remain illegal in races for federal office. No one’s wild about the Citizens United case, but the result at least lessened the national power of tribal government participation in America’s elections.

So that’s the financial pathway, but at least we each still have our own vote, right? Wrong.

Remember that tribal governments existed long before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but tribal government conduct in elections is not addressed in the Voting Rights Act designed to assist minority voters, nor has tribal government conduct in elections been addressed in any subsequent federal legislation respecting minority voters. Why is this a problem? The need of better access for minority voters is worthy and not the issue here. But when a separate government controls one minority, and its individual minority (Native American) voters can be coerced into bloc voting, that minority becomes a renegade “swing” vote. And the “swing” goes to the party most cooperative in close elections across the country.

There is an additional worry. In many, if not most states that host Indian reservations, a tribal identification card is the sole identification needed for a tribal member to register to vote. This would be fine if tribal governments were also required to provide accurate lists of their enrolled members to Secretaries of States or county officials that regulate and enforce elections. Tribes are not required to do so, and states have absolutely no legal way to verify or authenticate a tribal identification card used for voter registration. Why is this is a problem? States can verify state driver’s licenses, and other state identification sources. But what if tribal governments were to issue to a single voting tribal member, an identification card in an Indian name, an English name, and perhaps a maiden name as well? If I am a registered voter, and I have one vote, but my tribal neighbor may have more than one vote, and then votes in accordance with tribal government instruction, what does that do to my vote? It is part of the Hippopotamus that squelches my vote and yours.

This system has been in serious play in evenly divided states for more than two decades already, and is becoming even the more severe in terms of financial and voting political outcomes. Need some examples? How about the very close election that transferred a Senate seat from Slade Gorton to Maria Cantwell? Or the 130-vote difference on a third recount that provided Washington State with Governor Gregoire instead of Dino Rossi? The State Capitol of Olympia has been Santa Claus for 31 tribal governments for years now. Property and business tax losses and state revenue flowing to these tribes must be offset by the rest of Washington taxpayers.

Another egregious example exists in Montana. Before the November 2006 elections, the Crow Indian tribe passed a tribal legislative directive, endorsing a slate of tribal candidates for county government offices, and announced, “We’re taking over Big Horn County government.” The tribal legislation was full-page advertisement in newspapers on and off the reservation, and mandatory tribal employee “feasts” were held with shiny new tribal ID cards issued to tribal members up to and through Election Day.

At two polling precincts within the Crow Indian reservation, ballot boxes were left unlocked all day, a non-tribal poll watcher ordered to leave, and at final count, all tribal candidates handily won. It was a stunning and literal governmental coup. As a result of the Big Horn County election in November 2006 enrolled tribal members hold the county government seats of commissioners, the county attorney, the county sheriff, the county judge, and the county clerk/recorder (oddly, the one in charge of elections in Big Horn County). These tribal members now regulate and conduct county government actions of land use, taxation, and law enforcement that do not apply to tribal members within their reservation boundary. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State of Montana has no enforcement authority over polling precincts within Indian reservations. There are over 75 such polling precincts in Montana alone. But this shenanigan in Big Horn County had national consequence as well.

The ballots in unlocked ballot boxes on the Crow Indian Reservation provided over 800 votes to Senator John Tester, along with an additional 1,100 votes from other polling precincts within Montana Indian reservations. Senator Tester’s election shifted the power of the entire Senate, contributed to Congress’s attitudinal shift about the War in Iraq, and caused Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell to boast with such comments as:

“And I think too you know, and I tell them literally every place I give talks on Indians now, I think in one respect Indians can claim victory on the control of the United States Senate. Because it worked like this [in the 2006 mid-term elections last November]: they were down to the wire. The last senator whose votes were counted was Jon Tester of Montana. They had the numbers up there and they know it was Indians put him over the top. And Jon told me that too, he knows it too, Indian people got him elected.

Well, when you have the leadership and all the committee chairmanships and all the stuff change because one senator got elected [putting Democrats in the majority] – if Jon had not won that race, wouldn’t have had a new president of the Senate, wouldn’t have had a new chairman of the different committees and all that, right? So in a sense Indians can say that we got that man elected and he’s the one that tipped the scales, so we won the Senate.” [Ben Nighthorse-Campbell, Indian Country Today, June 15, 2007]

Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Washington, and many other states across our election landscape are very evenly divided between elephants and donkeys. Representing less than 1% of America’s population, the Hippopotami (tribal governments) politically rule today, with financial and voting power that is silent, secret, orchestrated by private tribal governments and further corrupts the elephants and donkeys, neither of whom call the shots any more. Does this help explain why both parties are now pandering to illegal immigration fans for a fresh and more manageable voting population?

One would think that all the perks obtained for over twenty years for tribes by Senator McCain would buy a little loyalty. But having attempted even a mild limit to off-reservation casinos, McCain has fallen from the tribal industry grace. Even BIA Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn finds no problem with verbally disrespecting Senator McCain in public hearings. Wealthy tribal governments require that elephants and donkeys remain loyal beasts of burden or they are immediately relegated to the tribal glue factory. Just ask former Senators Conrad Burns, Slade Gorton, Tom Daschle, or current Senator McCain. Senators such as Jon Tester know exactly where their bread is buttered and behave accordingly.

The congressionally created Hippopotamus has tamed its masters, and the cost to you and me is the last precious thing we have: our vote.  One man; one vote. This foundational principle must be unimpeded by out-of-control tribal governments acting as a silent but controlling Third Political Party in America’s elections.

What can you and I do about this? Track the funding behind incumbents, candidates and current elected officials. Be certain that elected representatives adhere to their Oath of Office and abandon their Stockholm Syndrome behavior toward tribal governments. Demand that not a single ballot box or polling precinct be located on land that lacks full and forceful authority and enforcement of the Secretary of State. And these actions must be done quickly and constantly to bring One Person – One Vote back to reality in this country.

Elaine Willman, MPA, is Board Member of Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA) an organization of community education groups and citizens in 25 states who reside within or near federally recognized Indian reservations.  Ms. Willman is author of Going To Pieces…The Dismantling of the United States of America, a non-fiction reflection of the voices on and near 17 Indian reservations in the United States.