Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
Native American and Alaska Native voters have the power to determine the next president.
“Had Native voters turned out in 2016, we would likely have had a very different outcome in the presidential election,” said OJ Semans, executive director of Four Directions Inc., a Native American voting rights advocacy organization. Semans is a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.
Native voters stand to play a crucial role in the 2020 election, especially in swing states where they make up significant portions of eligible voters. States in which two major parties have similar levels of support and high numbers of electoral votes are also home to large Native populations.
The approximately 3.7 million Natives and Alaska Natives of voting age are represented in this election’s crucial swing states.
Swing states and percentage of eligible Native voters:
- Arizona — 5.6 percent
- Colorado — 2.5 percent
- Michigan — 1.4 percent
- Minnesota — 1.8 percent
- Nevada — 2.5 percent
- North Carolina — 2.1 percent
- Wisconsin — 1.5 percent
At first glance, it might appear that the numbers are insignificant; however, if President Donald Trump’s narrow margin of victory in several states during the 2016 presidential election is any indication, the Native vote stands to play an important role in this election.
“Trump won the state during the 2016 election by 0.7 percent. We could have very well have swung that election,” said Guy Reiter of Menikanaehken Inc., a grassroots organization based on the Menominee reservation in northeast Wisconsin. In addition to working to revitalize its community, Menikanaehken Inc. is working to increase voter engagement and registration.
In the 2016 presidential election, however, only 1.8 million Native voters turned out, about half of the eligible voters.
According to the National Congress of American Indians, the voter rate among Native Americans is five to 14 percentage points lower than that of other racial groups.
These low rates have been attributed to a number of issues, including barriers to voting such as lack of polling places near or on reservations, voter registration requirements that call for physical mailing addresses (many Native folks on remote reservations maintain post office boxes rather than receive mail at home) and a general history of disenfranchisement and distrust of the federal government that goes back generations.
COVID-19 is creating further barriers for Indian Country as many turn to mail in voting as a means to mitigate exposure to the virus that has hit Native communities such as the Navajo Nation and Wisconsin tribes hard. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a lower court decision rejecting a lawsuit brought by six Navajo voters seeking to allow an extra 10 days for ballots mailed from the Navajo Nation to be counted. Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Wisconsin voting laws rejecting efforts to allow absentee ballots to be counted sent back to election officials on or just before election day.
Despite these challenges, Native leaders and voting advocates are confident that this election will be a game changer.
According to the newly released Indigenous Futures Survey — directed by IllumiNative, the Native Organizers Alliance and the Center for Native American Youth — Native Americans, especially youth, are highly engaged in the political process. About 5 percent of youth respondents were not old enough to vote in the 2016 election.
A high level of engagement in the political process such as signing petitions, sharing political content online, participating in a community action group, attending a protest both before and after the death of George Floyd, are predictors of greater voter turnout, according to survey authors.
The survey was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley from June 23 to Aug. 15, with responses from 6,460 Native people of voting age across the U.S. representing 401 tribes.
The survey was conducted online due to restrictions of the pandemic.
According to its findings, Native people living in battleground or swing states report higher voting rates than those in other locations.
Fifty-one percent of respondents identified as Democrats, 26 percent as independent, 9 percent as Democratic Socialist and 7 percent as Republican. The remainder identified as Libertarian, Green Party or Socialist.
The large number of Native candidates in local and state elections will also influence greater voter turnout, according to the survey’s authors.
Native voting rights advocates such as Reiter and Semans agree that more Native people will vote during this election, especially youth.
“There’s greater interest in this election cycle, especially among young people. They are really excited about voting; they are seeing the opportunity for us to make sure that Wisconsin goes in a way that represents Indigenous people,” Reiter said.
According to Maria Dadger, executive director of the Intertribal Council of Arizona based in Phoenix, Native youth have been especially responsive to the council’s social media voting outreach.
“The response from Native voters between 18-24 has been phenomenal,” she said.
Environmental quality, health and education are huge issues of concern for tribes, according to Dadger.
Indeed, researchers with the Indigenous Futures Survey found that health care, especially mental health, and the environment were among respondents’ top concerns.
Candidates take notice
Notably both the Biden and Trump campaigns are courting the Native vote; Joe Biden and Kamala Harris met with tribal leaders last month in Phoenix and later released their 15 page “Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations.”
According to their plan, a Biden administration will fully fund the Indian Health Service and potentially make funding mandatory rather than discretionary. The Biden-Harris plan also commits to aim to achieve net-zero emissions and ensure that investments in clean energy reach Native communities. Biden has also promised to end fossil fuel subsidies.
Later in October, Trump released his three-page policy vision for Indian Country, shortly after his son Donald Trump Jr. launched the Native Americans for Trump coalition in Williams, Arizona.
In his “Putting America’s First Peoples First: Forgotten More!” plan, Trump promised to respect tribal sovereignty and self-determination, promote safe communities, build a thriving economy with improved infrastructure, honor Native American heritage, improve education and deliver health care.
In a follow-up email to Indian Country Today’s request for details about Trump’s plans to deliver health care, Jennifer Kelly, advisor for regional communications and Hispanic median engagement wrote: “The Federal government remains committed to meeting existing federal trust and treaty obligations. Unfortunately, politicians of both parties, including some who have been in Washington, DC for several decades have fallen short. Thankfully, President Trump is not afraid to tackle long-overlooked challenges, just as he has done with the issue of Missing and Murdered Native Americans. A few examples of elevating the commitment to the trust relationship in the plan surround the provisions to improve education and healthcare in Indian Country. President Trump’s FY 2021 budget, for example, proposed a $185 million (3 percent) increase for Indian Health Service (IHS) funding totaling $6.2 billion. The President also launched the IHS Task (Force) to tackle long overlooked abuses in the IHS.”
Trump also promised to empower tribes to pursue responsible energy development on their lands.
Trump’s record on the environment and support for fossil fuel development, mining and pipelines that frequently impact Native lands and communities, however, has not gone unnoticed in Indian Country.
Trump famously approved the Dakota Access Pipeline, the subject of months-long opposition, near the Standing Rock Reservation within a month of taking office. The president has been an enthusiastic supporter of oil and gas pipeline development, the coal industry, mining in areas such as the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. During his administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has streamlined the environmental review process and timeline for pipelines and mining projects.
According to Dadger, access to clean, safe water is paramount to Native people in Arizona; the fallout from coal and uranium mines continue to pollute drinking water on the Navajo reservation.
“In Arizona, water is gold,” Dadger said.
The state of Wisconsin repealed its mining moratorium during the Trump administration while the president has sought to fast-track mining projects, offering grants and loans to help companies pay for equipment.
Environmental health is a big concern for Native voters in Wisconsin, according to Reiter.
“I don’t think there’s a tribe here in Wisconsin that isn’t fighting some sort of environmental threat from mining or pipelines. As Indigenous people, we don’t have the luxury of relocating. This is our land,” Reiter said.
“If you still need an excuse to vote, I don’t know what world you’re living in,” he said.
Although voters in Indian Country continue to experience barriers, Semans is hopeful for this election.
“In a matter of a week, we registered 1,600 people in Minnesota, 1,700 in Arizona and 1,800 in South Dakota. I’m really excited for Indian Country,” he said.
Professor Arianne Eason of the University of California-Berkeley, a researcher with the Indigenous Futures Survey, agrees.
“We saw really high rates of civic and political engagement among respondents. That being said, there were still a lot of barriers that Indigenous people were facing, and some of it is really access to polling places. At the same time, we see that people really are taking very seriously what's going on. And so when we look at what motivates people to vote, what people are really reporting, is caring about candidates’ platforms and their track record on Native and tribal issues.”
Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.
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