As there was no last-minute vacillating, on Wednesday January 25th the Council submitted language to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that if voted through by our Tribal members will amend our Tribal Constitution. Unlike the last three Constitutional elections-- and for that matter the only other Constitutional elections-- this proposal will have nothing to do with Tribal membership requirements. Instead, we are looking at election reform, specifically a primary that will reduce the number of candidates who seek office every year.
The change is really quite simple in concept. If more than 10 people are nominated to run for the usual three at-large Council positions which are up every year, then the Tribe would conduct a run-off election to reduce the field to six. A final election among those six candidates would follow. Should ten or fewer people seek office, then nothing happens.
This is not a new idea. As I recall elections years ago candidates then running for office suggested a primary. That was understandably around the 2000 Council elections, when 23 Tribal members vied for three Council seats. After 18 members ran during the 2009 elections, the Tribal Election Board first formally asked Council to consider instituting a primary/run-off. The discussions that followed didn’t get very far. During the 2010 Tribal Council elections a survey was included with the ballot asking people whether they would like to see a primary or run-off, and included options. Most members who answered the survey favored some way to narrow the field of candidates, with “6” leading the way but the rest spread out among the remaining options. That is often the case when you provide multiple choices.
When the Election Board approached us following the 2009 Council elections, their reasoning was not hard to understand. Too many candidates potentially dilute the vote, and they had even heard one candidate specifically ran just to do that, siphon votes away from rival candidates. I had heard the same thing, but certain rumors in Tribal politics can get outlandish and are generally hard to take seriously. The major concern though, that of an excessive number of candidates seeking office, was and is valid. Which raises two key questions: Would election results be different if fewer candidates ran? More importantly, does a primary stack the deck for incumbents?
I’ll get to both those, but let me begin by saying the answer to that first question is and would be purely theoretical, as few ways exist to determine how voters would cast ballots if presented with a different set of choices in hindsight. We popularly have the 2000 United States Presidential election as an example of how one option too many probably handed victory to a candidate. But that is a hard comparison to make with our own situation as presidential and senatorial elections do have primaries, and there was also the matter of electoral votes. What it does provide though is an example of the role “spoilers” play in an election, which was a topic when Council and the election board first began to pursue this idea.
To be blunt, and I am sure this will offend somebody, the Tribe has accommodated candidates for Tribal Council who either do not have a realistic shot of getting elected or expend little effort in their campaigns, not putting up signs, mailing out literature, appearing for the officially sanctioned debate, or some not even submitting the free 600-word Candidate statements given to them as a courtesy of our publications. To me such is the result of making the electoral act of throwing one’s hat in the ring as easy as literally throwing a hat into some ring. A Council campaign can be kicked off by a conversation as simple as “I’m gonna run for Council. Nominations are tomorrow morning. Can you nominate me?” And when close elections occur, one can’t help but wonder how vote dilution affected the outcome, kind of like the Gore/Bush election.
I do not agree with instituting requirements like having to be 35 years of age, or having a college degree. Being an effective leader is not always something you can quantify into a minimum qualification, especially for public office. But I don’t think we do the voters justice by having a system where to get your name on the ballot just show up at the Community Center the last Sunday in June, and if 20 or 30 others also show up, oh well.
Now I am not naïve and completely idealistic. There are potential drawbacks to a primary. For starters a certain portion of voters will be in love with a specific candidate or two or three. Should those candidates not make the cut, then we risk alienating those voters since they might not be particularly enamored with the remaining field. Voter turnout in the second round could drop, which is definitely not a goal of anybody. The eventual winners will get a higher percentage of votes, which is a goal. Gone will be the days of Council members getting elected with 9% of the vote. But disenfranchisement is a realistic possibility.
Back to the questions, which are relevant to one another. Although there hasn’t been a lot of debate on the issue, what comments we have received revolve around the perception that a primary will favor the incumbents. I remain unconvinced that is a given. For one, incumbents in most elections usually have a statistical advantage by virtue of name recognition. But it is one that can quickly turn to disadvantage during periods of great unrest when voters just want to see a new face. However, over the past few years Tribal voters have elected a grand total of one new Council member, and not by a wide margin. If anything, incumbents and former Council members already have a firm grip on the positions. The incumbent ousted in 2009 simply ran again in 2010 and was elected. In 2011, seven of the top nine vote-getters were either incumbents or former Council members. For 2010, six of the top eight were. Over the last five years, being an incumbent or former Council member appears to work just fine.
Let us assume the primary was instituted prior to the 2011 Council election. The top six vote recipients would have consisted of two incumbents, Reyn Leno (431 votes) and Kathy Tom (315), plus three former Council members in June Sherer (404), Mark Mercier (301), and Jan Reibach (266), and one potential newcomer in Denise Harvey (287). The sixth-place runner, Jan Reibach, would have nudged seventh place incumbent Wink Soderberg by 14 votes. Thus one incumbent would have been eliminated, albeit narrowly, but eliminated nonetheless. Also, only 165 votes separate first place from sixth. Assuming we don’t lose too many voters in the second round of the election, the campaign gets interesting, and by that I mean closer. If there really is a widespread desire to see new blood on the Council, then Denise Harvey probably benefits the most.
In 2009 and 2010 more than 10 candidates made up the field, which would have also triggered the primary. How would those elections have turned out? Let’s see. The top six in 2010 would have been me, incumbent Council member Chris Mercier (541 votes), former Council member Jack Giffen, Jr. (388), incumbent Steve Bobb (371), newcomer Patsy Pullin (331), former Council member Andy Jenness (283), and newcomer Denise Harvey (259). In 2009 the top six would have been newcomer Toby McClary (359), incumbent Valorie Sheker (338), incumbent Cheryle Kennedy (337), incumbent Jack Giffen, Jr. (324), newcomer April Campbell (272), and newcomer Shelley Hanson (248). There were 282 votes separating #1 through #6 in 2010, so a primary might not have made a big difference. But in 2009, when 111 votes separated the top six, I have to think that a primary could have changed everything, especially considering this fact: The eight Council members who have served more than one term were all re-elected with fewer votes than the previous time they won. The incumbent advantage, based on recent elections, is a declining one.
I can think of other arguments for and against. A primary will help those who don’t have the support of big families. That is probably true. Or the timeline of the primary helps incumbents. That is certainly true if a challenger doesn’t make their candidacy known until the day of nominations, which I wouldn’t recommend to anybody serious about running for Tribal Council. More arguments both ways will undoubtedly be made.
In the end, we won’t really know unless we try.