Tribal Government & News

One-third of eligible Tribal voters expected to vote

08.30.2012 Ron Karten Elections

If recent history holds true, only one-third of this year's 3,882 eligible Tribal voters will select the next three Tribal Council members when ballots are counted on Saturday, Sept. 8.

That's one in three adult Tribal members.

The Tribal Constitution controls who is eligible to vote in Tribal elections. It states that all "duly enrolled members … who are 18 years of age or older shall have the right to vote in all Tribal elections."

The percentage turnout of "registered voters" will be higher because many eligible adult Tribal members do not register to vote. In 2011, for instance, there were 3,844 Tribal members eligible to vote, but only 2,529 ballots were mailed, meaning 1,315 adult Tribal members - 34.2 percent -- did not register.

A Smoke Signals analysis of Tribal voting trends between 2003 and 2011, which includes nine Tribal Council elections, finds that Tribal voters during the last three years have been increasingly disinterested in voting.

Turnout of eligible voters averaged 37 percent during the six Tribal Council elections held between 2003 and 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, turnout decreased to an average of 30.9 percent - a 6.1 percent drop - for the three most recent Tribal Council elections.

The decline in Tribal voter participation coincided with the recession in the U.S. economy, which forced the Tribe to tighten its budgetary belt as Spirit Mountain Casino revenues leveled off for the first time in its history.

Bad economic times might have affected Tribal member interest in Tribal elections as concerns about paying the mortgage, keeping or getting a job and putting food on the table trumped other concerns.

The largest number of Tribal members to cast ballots occurred in 2008 when 1,349 voted. Two years later in 2010, only 1,095 Tribal members - the lowest number recorded in the nine-year span - participated.

The reasons why, however, remain elusive and speculative at best.

Tribal Council member Chris Mercier said he thinks there are three major factors affecting Tribal voter turnout.

"Proximity, in that I think the closer you are to the Tribe the more likely you are to vote," Mercier said. "Plus, it is an annual election, which might create burnout. It's just another layer of elections, including federal, state, county and city, that people have to worry about."

A breakdown of the 2009 election performed by the Tribal Elections Board appears to support Mercier's contention. Oregon eligible Tribal members voted at a 35.7 percent rate while 28.9 percent of those living in California voted and Tribal members in Washington state had a 19.8 percent participation rate. Those are the only three states with more than 100 Tribal members living in them.

Another factor, Mercier said, is that there are not as many "hot button" issues in Tribal politics that drive people to the polls like there are in other national and state elections where controversial wedge issues, such as gay marriage or abortion, can light a spark under casual voters.

Part of the problem also appears to be disinterest by new eligible voters - those turning 18. In 2003, 3,206 adult Tribal members were eligible to vote. By 2011, that number had grown 638 to 3,844 adult Tribal members, and by not voting many of those new eligible voters negatively affected turnout.

Although Tribal turnout has seen significant percentage declines from 2003 to 2011, last year's results offered a glimmer of hope for the Tribe's future as turnout increased from 2010's low of 29 percent to 32.9 percent, an almost 4 percent jump in one year.

The increase, perhaps, reflects the slowly improving economy nationally.

But even in the best year among the nine-year sample - 2004 when 40.7 percent of eligible Tribal voters cast ballots - almost six in 10 adult Tribal members did not cast a ballot in a Tribal Council election.

Tribal voting turnout mirrors national trends.

In the 1960 presidential election, 63.1 percent of Americans voted and 47.3 percent went to the polls in the 1962 off-year election. Fast-forward to the 2008 presidential election when 56.8 percent of Americans voted and 37.8 percent voted in the 2010 off-year election.

One truth is apparent in both national and Tribal elections: Fewer people are picking the people to lead the country and the Tribe.