"Wisconsin Native Vote" Boosts Native American Voter Turnout

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"Wisconsin Native Vote" Boosts Native American Voter Turnout

Premiere Date: 
April 18, 2014

Matt Dannenberg of the League of Conservation Voters talks about the group's efforts.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, what is happening in the Legislature and in the governor's race are of high interest this year to Native Americans. There are a number of hot button issues, from frac sand mining in Ho Chunk lands, to the open pit iron ore mine within the Ojibwe ceded territory, two calls for a new casino in Kenosha. In 2012, the Native American vote increased by up to 14% in some Native communities and a near record 90% turnout in the Menominee Nation. Matt Dannenberg is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and an organizer for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and is also part of a Native American initiative to get more voters to the polls and elect Native American politicians. Matt joins us now. Thanks very much for doing so.

Matt Dannenberg:

Thanks, Frederica, thanks for having me on the show.

Frederica Freyberg:

I wanted to ask, what is driving this increased turnout? Is it these hot button issues?

Matt Dannenberg:

Absolutely. In my four years as an organizer of the League of Conservation Voters, 2-1/2 of those have been spent organizing around the planned open pit ore mine up in the Penoke Hills. The issue there being the potential for arsenic, lead and mercury to be leached into their groundwater and their water supplies. Then an out-of-state company came in and changed the rules, so that they could pollute wetlands, fill in wetlands, fill in streams and essentially to the Native Americans, myself included there, basically damage their homelands. That's where they settled, because of the wild rice.

Frederica Freyberg:

So that is why we see a 90% turnout? What are the usual numbers for turnout?

Matt Dannenberg:

Sure, well, when we first were looking at doing this program, historically turnout has been about 20% to 25% lower in elections for Native Americans than in the general population in Wisconsin.

Frederica Freyberg:

What kind of work does it take to kind of engage tribal members in the electoral process in this way?

Matt Dannenberg:

We have a three-prong approach to our Native Vote program. First of all, is increasing turnout, which we have had tremendous success doing. There was a 2-1/2 hour line at the county clerk's office in Menominee County on election night. That was outstanding. Next, it takes building leaders. I met Adrian from Lac du Flambeau, and Aurora, and many others during the iron mining hearings up in Hurley and in Milwaukee and all around the state, and those leaders felt the need to give back to their community, talk to their neighbors about why it's important to vote, and they're continuing to contribute back to their community and work on those fights.

Frederica Freyberg:

And why has that kind of engagement kind of been lacking, if it has, in the past?

Matt Dannenberg:

Well, yeah. That's the third approach to our program, is to address the barriers to voting in Native communities. And the largest barrier by far is that Native Americans sometimes see that federal and state elections are irrelevant. So, by having leaders like Adrian and Aurora go back to their neighbors and talk to them about why they are relevant is extremely important. Also, Native Americans are motivated also by issues of healthcare and education to get out and vote. But there are a lot of physical barriers to voting as well, lack of transportation to the polls, financial reasons, demographic reasons. So there are a lot of barriers, as well as some of the new laws that have been passed that restrict voting hours. And when you have a population that needs as much access to the ballot box as possible, when there's any new law passed that restricts that, it does affect those communities.

Frederica Freyberg:

So in the future, you're going to have to kind of double down on access to the polls as just one prong of this effort. And you just said that tribal members sometimes feel that state and federal elections are irrelevant. Why?

Matt Dannenberg:

Well, yeah. It's a generational issue, that there's just been historically, let's be honest, a lot of distrust, because of agreements that were gone back upon. Something that I heard a lot during the iron mining debate was that elected officials in tribal communities and Native Americans felt like state officials didn't fully understand tribal sovereignty or their rights through the treaties. So, you know, with that historic going back on treaties, there is a lot of frustration and historic nonparticipation.

Frederica Freyberg:

So as part of this effort, you're not only trying to get people to the polls to vote in these elections, but you're trying to get people to run for office, and you've been successful. I know that in Sawyer County there were two tribal members just elected to their Board of Supervisors. But you've had other successes in this regard as well.

Matt Dannenberg:

Absolutely. When you can elect leaders to local, state and federal offices that will work better with tribal officials, it will benefit the communities greatly. So it's really exciting to see more Native Americans out running for office. It's definitely a major part of our leadership plan. That is part of our campaign. So we hope to see more Natives running for office. And one in particular, a mentor of mine, someone I look up to is a Bad River Elder, Joe Rose, Sr. who just took a seat on the Ashland County Board, and he's been a very outspoken advocate on the iron mining issue. And he'll be a great rep in his area.

Frederica Freyberg:

So if tribal interest is up around issues like the iron ore mine, so is interest in those races by outside groups we've seen, especially mine advocates. So how do big money issues and interest change the playing field in Wisconsin, especially for the tribes?

Matt Dannenberg:

Well, a lot of these local elections, but it's any way you look at it, legislative elections as well, the continued influence by outside money is making it harder and harder for the democratic process to work, and especially those local elections, when they're decided by, you know, a few dozen votes, that outside money can have a major influence. But it can also backfire, as we saw in Iron County.

Frederica Freyberg:

Matt Dannenberg, thanks very much.

Matt Dannenberg:

Thank you. 


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