RENO, Nev. – Longtime Republican strongholds in the Midwest and West appear to be up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election, and Native people are emerging as the key swing vote, according to Democratic Party political strategist Celinda Lake. Speaking for the party, Lake has said, ”We cannot win these key battleground states without a turnout in the Indian vote.”
Enter Kalyn Free, Choctaw, who recognized a historic opportunity to make the nation take notice of indigenous people and their issues.
A former Oklahoma district attorney and Justice Department senior counsel, Free founded the Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN’s List, in 2005. The Oklahoma-based group recruits, trains and funds Democratic Native candidates; of the 28 it has endorsed for state and local offices, 22 have won their races.
Nevada’s election format also works well with her concept. ”In caucuses, you can have a big effect with a small number of people,” explained Louis Gray, Osage, INDN’s List Education Fund’s Nevada state director. ”The last time Nevada caucused, 4,000 people turned out. If we get just 1,000 Indians to the polls, we may represent some 25 percent of the electorate. Then we’ll have representatives who go to the state convention and help write the state platform.”
The tasks for Gray and his small staff, who began work in November, are to register Native people, hold ”mock caucuses” to familiarize new voters with the process and, finally, help people get to the meetings on election day. Caucuses, Gray explained, are one-hour events, during which a voter enters a room and goes to a spot designated for his or her favorite candidate. ”If your candidate does not attract a certain proportion of voters present, other candidates’ supporters can lobby you to switch to their corner,” he said.