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Native American Analyst: Our Voting Bloc Helped Flip Wisconsin Blue After It Voted for Trump in 2016

Web ExclusiveNovember 18, 2020
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In Part 2 of our look at the overlooked, yet critical role Native American voters played in Joe Biden’s presidential win, we go to Wisconsin, where Biden won by just 21,000 votes and Native American voter participation helped turn the state blue. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016. We are joined by Burton Warrington, president of Indian Ave Group, who examined the voter turnout in the state and reports on what he found for 2020 and 2018. He is Menominee, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk. “In Wisconsin, these are tight elections, and with our voting bloc, we can actually swing these elections,” Warrington notes. “Considering the circumstances here, the Native vote really does have the ability, by sheer numbers and mathematics, to actually change the election here.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the critical role Native American voters played in Joe Biden’s presidential win. Biden’s path to the presidency was secured by flipping key swing states that went for Trump in 2016. This may not have been possible without a surge in Native voter participation across the country, key among these states Wisconsin, where Biden won by just 21,000 votes. Native American voter participation helped turn the state blue. Trump won by that number, just about, won Wisconsin, in 2016.

For more on the Native vote in Wisconsin, we’re joined by Burton Warrington. He’s president of Indian Ave Group. He is a lawyer who has served in the Obama administration’s Interior Department. He’s Menominee, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us from Wisconsin Rapids. Tell us where you are in the state of Wisconsin right now.

BURTON WARRINGTON: Yeah, so, I always tell people I’m right on the edge of Menominee treaty territory. But right on Wisconsin River, Wisconsin Rapids is pretty much central Wisconsin as you can get.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the numbers that you have run, which we see almost nowhere. As we talked about in Part 1 of this conversation, when CNN put up a graphic on election night, it was African American, Latino, Asian American and “something else.” Talk about the Native American vote.

BURTON WARRINGTON: Yeah. So, you know, I think when you look at the Native American vote, it’s understandable, unfortunately, that we don’t get talked about a lot, but, you know, I’m not going to sit around and cry about it. I look for solutions. So, if nobody else is going to run the numbers, we need to run the numbers ourselves. And that’s precisely what we did. And in Wisconsin, we’ve got a pretty compelling case about how the Native vote went in Wisconsin and the impact that it had on the election, not only in 2020, but in 2016 and 2018, which I can talk about those numbers, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Go right ahead.

BURTON WARRINGTON: Yeah, so, in Wisconsin, we’re dealing with roughly about 71,400 Native Americans that are 18-plus, right? So, you know, relatively small number in the grand scheme of Wisconsin, about 1.6%. But what you’ve seen in the 2016 presidential election, which you alluded to, was President Trump had won Wisconsin by a little under 23,000 votes in 2016. And then, a lot of people nationally don’t pay attention to this, but we won the Wisconsin governor race by a little over 29,000 votes, got a Democrat in to replace Scott Walker up here. And then, you know, fast-forward to 2020 now where we’re dealing with a margin a little bit under 21,000. So, you had, you know, around 23,000, 29,000, 21,000. And in Wisconsin, these are tight elections, and with our voting bloc, we can actually swing these elections. So, that’s not always evident in every state. So, you know, considering the circumstances here, the Native vote really does have the ability, by sheer numbers and mathematics, to actually change the election here.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, as we see, Trump wins by 21,000 votes, 20,000 votes in 2016, and the same number of votes Biden wins by in 2020. As you point out, there are over 70,000 Native American voters. So, talk about how you parsed it out in 2020, for this election, who people vote for. How likely are Native Americans to vote?

BURTON WARRINGTON: Understanding Wisconsin is — everybody that watches election coverage, you know, you see the different states, and you see the the big map, whether it’s Steve Kornacki or whoever you’re watching. They start breaking it down by counties. So, in Wisconsin, there’s only one county, which is where I’m from originally — Menominee County and Menominee Reservation are one in the same. They share the same borders. So everybody looks to Menominee County as a bellwether and says, “How did the tribal vote go?” What we’ve seen in Menominee County was 82% for Biden, 18% for Trump. And we’ve actually seen a 24% increase at Menominee County in pure raw voters over 2016, so that’s a pretty significant bump in numbers. And I think you’re seeing that when the lawsuits came in Wisconsin, there were three counties they were trying to overturn, was Dane County, where Madison is; Milwaukee County; and then Menominee County got lumped in with it. So, even the Republicans understand that Menominee County, you know, is a bellwether, and they’re paying attention to our county.

But, you know, outside of that, a lot of people stop there at the county level, but it doesn’t really give you a broader picture. So, what we did is we took the time to break it down into municipal wards in Wisconsin, which is really parsing through numbers. But we were able to identify 16 different municipal wards that have significant tribal populations. And we tested that against Menominee. And when we tested that, that larger test group against Menominee, what we found was 82% Biden, 18% Trump, 20% overall increase in votes from 2016 to 2018. And that’s just pure raw votes in those municipal wards. But when you look at it relative to how many more votes Biden got than Clinton, you’re seeing a 27% increase in the pure number of votes that President-elect Biden got over what Secretary Clinton had got.

So, you know, and all told, there was roughly about a 43,000-vote swing in Wisconsin from 2016 to 2020. And about 6,000 of those votes, or about 15% of that margin, was the Native vote. And that’s pretty significant, when you looked at it. And like I mentioned before, I can’t say with 100% confidence that, you know, any subgroup of the voting bloc in Wisconsin actually won the election for President-elect Biden, but what I can confidently say is, if 100% of Native Americans stayed home, Biden loses Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the pandemic affect the Native American vote in Wisconsin? I mean, we had other states where judges refused to allow even a polling place to open, said people had to go off the reservation.

BURTON WARRINGTON: Yeah, you know, it’s been really interesting. And, you know, different communities have been impacted differently up here. We have 11 federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin. So, each community is a little different, but, you know, definitely more precautions. And I think we got an increase in people actually voting early, not at the levels we would like to see, but still people did vote early.

You know, one of the differences was for organizers, is, you know, every four years, there’s a lot of groundswell of organizers on the ground, knocking doors, trying to register people. And, you know, this year, we weren’t allowed to do that because of protocols in place because of COVID. So, I think we’ve seen a little bit of an impact on voter engagement, but that just meant that we had to get better and do it in other ways. So, a lot of online — I got zoomed out myself. But, you know, we got it done.

AMY GOODMAN: Say that again. You said you, yourself, got COVID?

BURTON WARRINGTON: No, no, no. I got zoomed out. I got tired of being on constant Zooms or, you know, Skypes. You know, we had to revert to, you know, using technology and trying to do voter engagement that way. We had done some stuff with Mark Ruffalo on some get-out-the-vote stuff. And we just really had to talk to our relatives directly. And like I said, we just couldn’t be in the communities like we normally were, because of COVID.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you also talk about what you feel are the issues of major concern in the Native American community, if you can generalize, what people felt they were going out to vote on, what motivated them most?

BURTON WARRINGTON: Yeah, so, that’s a really loaded question, because, you know, there’s several different factors. And from what I’ve seen firsthand, you know, there were obviously people that voted against Trump, who are highly, highly offended by the way Trump conducted himself, and, you know, particularly towards us, the way that he just nonchalantly came out and said, you know, Columbus Day doesn’t matter, kind of washing over history. You know, that definitely motivated some people.

President-elect Biden’s policy towards Native Americans, that definitely motivated some people to come out and vote. And, you know, that’s something that we’re going to hold him accountable to, as you come into our communities, make these promises. If anybody’s been lied to in the history of this country, it’s been the Native American population. And a lot of people put their faith in President Biden, and, you know, we expect him to follow through.

So, when you ask, like, what’s the major issue for us, all we’ve always wanted to be is just treated fairly, right? Throughout history, we’ve been treated unfairly. We’re not asking for anything, you know, extra. It’s just treat us fairly, follow the treaties. These are not discretionary obligations of the United States; they’re mandatory obligations. And when you make a deal — Justice Hugo Black in the Supreme Court case kind of wrapped it up the best. He said, “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.” And that’s all we’ve ever asked the United States, is to keep their word to these treaties that we’ve signed.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any key issue you would say now, learning how the breakdown has come out, a message to Native Americans in other states or to non-Native people, as well, and including Native Americans and candidates, as well, although there was also a record number of Native candidates running at every level in the United States?

BURTON WARRINGTON: Yeah, I think it’s a wake-up call to both parties. So, for Democrats to think that they’re going to come into our communities and always have our vote, I think that they would be very mistaken. It really comes down to candidates and issues. So, like, where I’m from, in Menominee County, we have a Republican member of the state Legislature and a Republican member of the U.S. House. And they both vastly outperformed President Trump. And so, our votes aren’t just guaranteed to the Democrats. So, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, they need to be in our communities, and they need to be paying attention to our issues, if they want our votes. And I think you’re seeing that across the country.

And like I had mentioned, nobody else is going to run these numbers for us, so we have to kick into action and do it ourselves and prove to people that, yes, we can swing elections. And I think, from the media’s — even though the media was very slow to pick it up, you know, there’s probably been at least a dozen media accounts of the Native vote in the last week or so. So, it’s a little delayed, but, nonetheless, it’s opening people’s eyes to our actual impact.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask you about Deb Haaland, the push to make her secretary of interior in the Biden administration. The Biden transition team is in the process of vetting the New Mexico Democratic congressmember for interior secretary, according to The Hill and other sources. The development came after Haaland dropped out of a three-way leadership race for House Democratic Caucus vice chair. If Haaland is tapped by the president-elect, her nomination would be historic, making her the first Native American Cabinet secretary, where she would oversee an agency with vast responsibility over tribal issues and public lands. You worked in the Interior Department, is that right, Burton Warrington? Can you comment on this?

BURTON WARRINGTON: Yeah, so, during the first Obama administration, I had served as a counselor to the assistant secretary of Indian affairs, and I’ve seen firsthand what happened when — because, you know, the president of the United States, or even the vice president, they’re not going to be able to spend very much time directly on Native American issues. So that authority gets delegated out into the secretary, not only of interior, but HHS and other Cabinet-level. But definitely Interior has the most interaction with Native Americans. So, you know, it really matters who a president is going to bring into their administration, right? Because a president only has 24 hours in a day. And it really matters who’s appointed to these positions. So, you know, I’m excited about Congresswoman Haaland’s chances. At the end of the day, I think they’ll make the right decision and select her for that position.

But outside of that, it’s also federal judges. You know, there’s only one federal judge that’s sitting that’s a Native American right now. That shouldn’t be the case. If the judiciary should look like America, we should have a lot more than one judge on there.

And then, you know, there’s a lot of positions in the administration that people think as Native American positions, right? We’re going to put Native Americans in these seats because they deal with Native Americans. But we don’t want to be pigeonholed. And Congresswoman Haaland is a perfect example, is we can serve in positions that don’t only serve Native Americans, like the secretary of interior and like a lot of other high-ranking positions in the government.

So, when you look at how the Trump administration, what we’re coming off of, it’s going to be a breath of fresh air, whoever ends up getting the secretary position and the people in the assistant secretary’s office and other key offices. It makes all the difference in the world when people aren’t learning on the job about us, when they come into office knowing about us.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you characterize President Trump’s approach to Native America?

BURTON WARRINGTON: You know, like everything else in his — in the last four years, is disorganized, chaos. You know, he came out kind of 11th hour and tried to blow some smoke with, you know, a couple publicity stunts in the last six months of his administration. But, you know, consistently throughout his administration, he showed that he didn’t care about the Native American community.

And, you know, quite honestly, there’s a — I have to take my hat off to people that actually served in this administration, because that couldn’t have been easy. And, you know, I think a lot of them had gotten into positions, but they weren’t making decisions. There were decisions being made for them. And, you know, we’ve taken a couple steps back, for sure. You know, even taking off my partisan hat and looking at it on the ground, we’ve definitely taken steps back with this Trump administration.

And the thing that, you know, your casual listener isn’t going to understand is, and, well, people like myself who have served internally within interior, is we’re not going to understand what this administration actually did until you get in there and start peeling back the layers. And it’s the stuff that didn’t make the headlines, or it’s the stuff that — nobody knew about the decisions or policies that they changed internally. So, it’s the same thing we faced in the first Obama administration, was, before you could get the tracks — the train going back down the tracks, you have to rebuild the tracks. And that’s going to be the challenge for the first wave of people to go into the Biden administration, is really undoing the harm that’s been done in the last four years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Burton Warrington, I want to thank you so much for being with us, president of Indian Ave Group, a member of the Menominee, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk Nations, speaking to us from Wisconsin.

This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. To see Part 1 of our discussion on Native American voting in the 2020 election, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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