Will Standing Rock stir younger Native voters?
Mark Trahant / TrahantReports
Will young people vote in 2016? And, more important, at least for our purposes, how about the younger generation of American Indians and Alaska Natives?
Let’s explore the first question.
Younger voters are perplexing. They are, or should be, the largest group voters, some 75 million. And the data shows they are far more likely to vote for Democrats than other generations. Except there is an “except.” Young voters are less likely to vote.
In 2008 they were a key constituent bloc helping to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States. In fact, in 2004, 2006, and 2008 young voters were the majority of Democratic party votes; the most supportive group. And, according to Pew Research, in 2008 some two-thirds of those under 30 voted for Barack Obama “making the disparity between young voters and other age groups larger than in any presidential election since exit polling began in 1972.”
But after 2008, well, not so much.
A report by the Census Bureau on voting patterns said: “In 2012, the voting population 45 years of age and over increased, while the number of voters 18 through 44 years old decreased. Between 1996 and 2008, there was only a single example of an age group showing a decrease in net voting from one presidential election to the next, yet in 2012 significant decreases occurred for two age groups. Younger voters 18 through 29 years of age reported a net voting decrease of about 1.8 million, while voters between the ages of 30 through 44 reported a decrease of about 1.7 million.” The bottom line: A decrease of 1.9 million voters between the ages of 30- through 44-year-olds in 2012.
The data backs up the idea that young people were excited by Obama’s first presidential campaign. He changed the conversation. But then the hard slog of politics, the fights with Congress, the slow pace of change, and so many compromises by Obama turned off younger voters. That’s a problem that goes beyond any single candidate. How do you convince younger voters that politics and policy are more complicated than an election slogan?
Hillary Clinton has been trying to figure out younger voters. But as The New York Times pointed out this week that’s not so easy. As a group they do not watch television and “they tend not to be motivated by any single, unifying issue, making the job of messaging harder. They are declaring themselves unaffiliated with either party at a rate faster than any other generation. They say the political process and the two-party system are unresponsive to their concerns.”
This is true in Indian Country, too. It’s reflected on Facebook where younger American Indian and Alaska Native voters equate Clinton with the establishment and do not understand why Bernie Sanders is no longer an option. For his part, Sanders has campaigned with Clinton. He wrote in The Los Angeles Times: “My supporters and I began a political revolution to transform America. That revolution continues as Hillary Clinton seeks the White House. It will continue after the election. It will continue until we create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent – a government based on the principle of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.”
There are even some younger Native American voters who see Donald Trump as an agent of change and worth the risk (all the while proclaiming support for Standing Rock or calling for more federal action on climate change.)
Part of the problem is that Clinton does not understand the priorities of younger voters. Recent hacked audio conversations between Clinton and high-value donors back in February explain that gap. “There’s just a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel,” she said according to Politico.
That’s where the Standing Rock story comes into play.
Clinton has been silent about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline dispute. The narrative from the camps is that she doesn’t care. I suspect the real issue is that her staff sees this as another pipeline dispute similar to Keystone XL pipeline. She was not eager to weigh in on that issue either. They don’t see this as unique moment in history when all of North America’s indigenous people are speaking with one voice.
The Clinton generation, and that includes the Obama administration, cling to the idea that we can continue to drill and transport oil the same way we have been doing it for decades. They say climate change is real, but back away from the hard decisions required to limit consumption of fossil fuels. In a lot of ways they play the same “either, or” game as the extractive industry equating oil and gas production with a strong economy (and votes). But I think younger voters would understand a call to sacrifice. A Harvard study last year found that three-out-of-four see climate change as real and caused by humans.
To my way of thinking: The single best thing Clinton could do to connect with younger voters would be to visit the camps at Standing Rock, learn from what’s going on, and take a stand. The evidence for why such an approach would work with younger voters is found across social media. When there is a report of an event, a prayer, or direct action, it spreads via social media by the hundreds of thousands. Imagine what it would mean to any campaign to collect the data from likes and reactions from that potential pool of voters.
So what about younger American Indian and Alaska Native voters? As the NativeVote.Org web site reports: “The Native youth population is growing at a rate higher than the rest of the country. Native Vote in partnerships with other youth non‐profit organizations will be working to reach out to these new and future voters. Part of this effort will include the development of a youth curriculum to encourage civic engagement and get them involved and be part of making a difference in their communities.”
But those numbers remain a promise and a concern. How many will take the steps necessary to vote?
I recently wrote this about the potential voters from the camps at Standing Rock: “Many of the water protectors arrived about a month ago and say they were willing to stay as long as it takes. That means (or it could mean) that they are residents under North Dakota law and could vote in the next election. How would that work? There would have to be some mechanism in place to certify the “new residents” either by identification or more likely by affirmation. If that is done now, then people at the camps can vote in the November election because North Dakota does not require voter registration. Imagine adding 2,000, 3,000 people or more to the voter rolls in Morton County, ND. There could even be a write-in campaign for county offices (members of the county commission are currently running unopposed). This would send a message to those in office that the people at the camps are constituents, too.”
Beyond the Standing Rock camps another potential pool of voters could come from tribal colleges.
In North Dakota there are some 3,500 tribal college students enrolled across the state, including 1,500 at United Tribes Technical College. Residential college students can vote using a campus address (or by absentee with their home address). Either way imagine a turnout goal of 90 percent.
Across the country that’s nearly 30,000 students or 27,000 voters at 90 percent.
Then a goal of 90 percent Native youth turnout, lofty as it is, could be set for colleges and universities, tribal communities, and in urban areas. This election has a loud call to action that transcends normal politics and that’s a resolution to the Standing Rock issues as well as the next White House getting more serious about climate change action.
Will younger voters show? We don’t know. But we do know this: Older voters will be there. “Presidential elections have been dominated by voters of the Baby Boom and previous generations, who are estimated to have cast a majority of the votes,” notes Pew Research Center. And that “election reign” may come to an end this November … that is only if younger voters are present.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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