DURANT — Oklahoma’s five largest tribes broke precedent last month by endorsing Joy Hofmeister for governor. The Choctaw Nation last week established another election first with an initiative to address low voter turnout among its citizens.

Though few of the nation’s employees and elders took advantage of free transportation to polls, early voting turnout more than tripled the 2018 total for the tribe’s service area, which includes 11 counties in the state’s southeast corner.

“We accomplished what we set out to do,” said Kellie Matherly, who directs content development for the Choctaw Nation and volunteered to ride a charter bus from the nation’s headquarters in Durant to the Bryan County courthouse, where the polling site resides. Her job was to have bus riders sign transportation and non-partisan waivers. 

Kevin Stitt’s successful run for governor in 2018 netted 63% of all votes cast in the Choctaw’s 11,000-square-mile service area, which consists of the southeast Oklahoma counties of Atoka, Bryan, Choctaw, Coal, Haskell, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha — and portions of Hughes County. According to 2020 census data, 13% of respondents in those counties identified as American Indian.

Yet 49.3% of registered voters in those counties cast ballots in the 2018 general election — six points below the state average.

Only 22% voted in the June gubernatorial primary, alarming tribal officials and prompting them to respond. 

“We were charged as a department with how we can make it more efficient and have better access for our employees and our tribal members,” said Brian McClain, executive director of government relations at the Choctaw Nation. 

In Bryan County, which ranked 74th among 77 counties in 2018 voter turnout at 46.8%, Choctaw officials were able to confirm that only 20 people were transported from nation headquarters, tribal offices and community centers to the polling place in their precinct. Another 16 were transported to polls in Broken Bow, Wilburton and Smithville.

Brian McClain

“It’s more about trying to give people the opportunity to vote,” McClain said. “We’ve got to do better.” 

A coalition of 20 tribes and non-native partners known as United for Oklahoma launched a Vote Your Values this election season to inspire voting participation regardless of how members vote, said Matthew Morgan, an attorney for the Chickasaw Nation and chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

“The main thrust of the Vote Your Values educational campaign was to get as many people registered to vote as possible,” said Morgan, organizer of the voting initiative. “And then, we went around the state of Oklahoma and created a series of videos featuring people of all walks and asking if they voted and why it was important.” 

State election data shows 22,017 voters cast ballots during early voting in the 11 counties, up from 7,055 in 2018. 

Following a storm on Friday, state Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax declared an election emergency for  McCurtain County, causing a polling place in Idabel to be moved. Early voting is still up there by 152 ballots. 

Though Choctaw officials emphasized the goal of increasing voting regardless of the preferred candidate or party affiliation, Oklahoma’s tribes have been at odds with the Stitt administration throughout much of his term. Stitt challenged the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt decision reaffirming sovereignty for Tribes and their ability to have jurisdiction over non-natives who commit crimes against natives. He’s also decided to not renew gaming compacts that were supposed to auto-renew according to a federal district court. 

Leaders of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations cited Hofmeister’s willingness to work with them on Oct. 10 when they endorsed her. Hofmeister, the current state school superintendent, switched from Republican to Democrat to run against Stitt, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. 

“I don’t think anyone that has paid attention over the last four years, specifically concerning the governor’s race doesn’t understand the positions that Tribes have been put in,” Morgan said, “But we would never tell any individual voter how to vote.” 

Tye Baker, senior director of environmental protection, was among those who took advantage of charter bus services from Choctaw headquarters to the Bryan County Courthouse.

Tye Baker

“I can remember four years ago, not far from here, Stitt came down and talked to many of us associates and tribal members and he talked a good game about how he was looking forward to working with Chief Batton,” said Baker said in an interview with Oklahoma Watch. “And unfortunately, almost immediately, he turned against us. There was no cooperation and there were no conversations.”

Teresa Gardner is a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and an employee of the Choctaw Nation. She drove to the polls Thursday and decided on her vote before the tribes’ endorsement. Gardner said her main motivators are Stitt’s handling of the pandemic by keeping everything open and fear of charter and private schools arriving in rural Oklahoma through a statewide voucher program. 

“Taking critical funding from already underfunded schools and giving it to these schools that have sponsors backing them. I think that might end up hurting our public schools. I am not for the vouchers,” Gardner said.

Doyle Brown, 73, and his wife Janice, 68, are lifelong Republican voters and Durant residents. Despite their concerns about school vouchers, they took advantage of Oklahoma’s straight-party voting option to cast their ballots for the GOP.

“The problem with that is, and we’ve talked about this a lot, we pull money from public schools and from children who are entitled to a free public election,” added Doyle, elaborating on his misgivings about the fate of rural public schools. 

Baker, who manages the Choctaw Nation’s environmental protection services, said voting is especially critical for tribal members now.

“There is so much on the federal level and the state level affecting tribal nations at this time,” he said. “So, if the people don’t get out and vote and participate in government, then I’m afraid that government’s not going to be what they want it to be, and it could fail them.”

Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or lramos@oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.

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