Native vote in Montana favors Democrat Tester

Voters on Montana's reservations helped send Democrat Jon Tester to the U.S. Senate on Election Day in one of the tightest races in the nation.

An analysis by Indianz.Com showed that counties with a significant percentage of American Indians and Alaska Natives voted overwhelmingly for Tester. With only about 2,600 votes separating Tester and Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, the Native vote played a role in an election that saw Democrats take control of the entire U.S. Congress.

Although Burns chairs the Senate subcommittee that handles Indian funding, he saw a battering of his public image due to the Jack Abramoff scandal. He steered millions to Abramoff's wealthy tribal clients, prompting Montana Natives to question his priorities.

The negative perception showed up in places like Big Horn County, home to the Crow Reservation, voters chose Tester over Burns by a nearly 2-1 margin. Tester won 64 percent of a vote in a county that is 60 percent Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The results were similar in Glacier County, home to the Blackfeet Reservation. There, 62 percent of voters chose Tester in a county with a 62 percent Native population.

In Roosevelt County, home to the Fort Peck Reservation, 58 percent of voters went with Tester. The county is 56 percent Native.

Even in places where Native Americans are not the majority, the election results showed the power of their vote. In Blaine County, where Natives make up 45 percent of the population, 51 percent picked Tester over Burns.

Four other counties with sizable, double-digit percentage Native populations -- Choteau, Hill, Lake and Rosebud -- saw some rather tight margins between Tester and Burns. In all but one of these counties, Tester carried the vote.

In contrast, counties where Native Americans are the extreme minority -- fewer than 10 percent of the population -- saw Burns victorious. The lower the Native percentage, the more votes went to Burns in Beaverhead, Carter, Custer, Garfield and a slew of other counties.

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up less than 1 percent of the entire U.S. population, according to the Census. But the results from Tuesday reflect the growing recognition that their votes can play a critical role in elections in certain states like Montana, where Native Americans are about 6 percent of the population.

The pattern can be seen in other states as well. In South Dakota, where Natives are 8.4 percent of the population, the House and Senate races from 2002 to 2004 hinged on the Native vote, according to Indianz.Com analyses published after those elections.

Montana and South Dakota are all the more notable due to a number of high-profile voting rights lawsuits in the two states. Native voters have successfully forced changes to the voting system and elected Native candidates as a result of the cases.

In Montana, the campaign has helped send seven tribal members to the State Legislature. This year, Crow tribal members ran for five out of eight elected positions in Big Horn County.

Montana Election Results:
U.S. Senate (Montana Secretary of State)

National Election Results:
Key Senate Races | Key House Races

Relevant Links:
Jon Tester for US Senate - http://www.testerforsenate.com
Conrad Burns for Senate - http://www.conradburns.com
Sen. Conrad Burns - http://burns.senate.gov
Montana Republican Party - http://www.mtgop.org
Montana Democratic Party - http://www.montanademocrats.org