Skip to main content

Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

The last decade has mostly been amazing for the Native Americans who ran for public office. Recite the names and it’s an easy answer as to the, “why.” Deb. Yvette. Sharice. Ruth. Such amazing people and stories. And each shared a legacy: They campaigned in a district where they could win.

That’s not the case for some 390 or so House seats (out of 435 districts). Most congressional districts tip toward the Republicans or Democrats in a way that makes competition tough. It’s like running a mile uphill. A task that’s much easier on flat ground (or even downhill).

The story of Indigenous participation in elections has largely been a success story. Helen Peterson, Oglala, wrote about the transformation of pueblos that had zero voters in 1952. “But in 1956, after a voter education program, only two pueblos still clung to their traditional conservative attitude toward voting while achieving 100 percent registration.”

Peterson wrote an article on voting for The Annals of the American Academy in May of 1957. She found that the Navajo vote, for example, was dependent on geography. More than 80 percent of the Navajo vote was from New Mexico because in Arizona county and state officials went out of their way to discourage participation. Plus, she wrote, “New Mexico, unlike Arizona, does not require a literacy test for voting eligibility.”

Sixty-four years ago a literacy test was a tool limiting Indigenous participation. Today it’s more about how election lines are drawn.

As Peterson showed Indigenous communities are often divided by state lines. Navajo voters participated in New Mexico, but not Arizona, because of the rules in place.

The average congressional district is about 711,000 people — and no tribe has that large a population. But it could be closer than it is. The Navajo Nation has some 400,000 citizens. The Cherokee Nation also has about that number. Each reflects about 56 percent of a single district, far more than enough people to win.

As it stands Arizona’s congressional district one had the nation’s highest percent for Native population at about 23.2 percent. I started writing in my political blog in 2016 about the potential for a Navajo to win this seat. (There has never been a Navajo serving in Congress.)

In fact Arizona’s Congressional District 1 and the accompanying legislative districts drawn in 2011 was an example of an Independent Redistricting Commission reflecting the possibility that democracy would be best served by broader representation. President Joe Biden carried the district by 50.1 percent, and U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat, defeated his GOP opponent by a little more than 3 percentage points.

The new, likely Arizona district will no longer be competitive. The new district will favor Republicans by as much as 15 percentage points by adding Prescott and Yavapai County. (And, as a result, pitting Democratic Representative O’Halleran against Republican Representative Paul Gossar. He’s recently been stripped of his congressional committee assignments because he posted a violent video threatening another Democrat, Representative Alexandra Ocassio-Cortez.)

The Arizona Daily Mirror reported that Independent Chair Erika Neuberg said Indigenous voters will be better off in the new district. “From my perspective, I’m most thinking about how we honor the entire state and also not marginalize those northern tribes,” Neuberg said. “How far that (partisan) spread becomes may be relevant to how well that minority group may be able to advocate for themselves.”

Then it’s worth noting the policy differences on tribal issues. Gossar’s record includes calling tribes today “wards of the government” and opposes the administration on virtually every issue from the Violence Against Women Act to the infrastructure bills.

So instead of encouraging participation, and growing the number of Native voters, shrinking the base is a slap against the very ideals of representative democracy.

A 2020 report by the Native American Rights Fund and the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, “Obstacles at Every Turn; barriers to political participation faced by Native American voters,” warned about “cracking” and “packing.” That’s when Native voters are divided to “maximize the number of wasted votes.”

Montana’s new congressional districts will do just that. The tribes are divided and in the new second district, a Republican safe seat, Native voters are slightly under 8 percent. (The new first district which is more competitive only has about 4.6 percent Native voters.)

Keaton Sunchild, political director of Western Native Voice, told the Great Falls Tribune that the new districts ultimately suppress the Native vote.

"The issue is that in either district, the Native population isn't enough to influence the vote in any direction," Sunchild told the Tribune. "So, whoever the candidates are on either side of the aisle, they can just completely disregard the Native vote in both districts.”

Native voters in Montana have a record of achievement. The state legislature reached a parity with the population, electing 4 in the Senate and 8 in the House for a total of 8 percent of those two bodies.

New Mexico’s plan is being debated in the legislature now. One plan would boost tribal representation at the state level, but critics are not sure yet about the congressional boundaries.

Keegan King, co-chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors ad hoc redistricting committee, said the tribes and pueblos in the state have been working on this process since the beginning because “tribes know how high the stakes are.”

Casey Duma, co-chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and counsel for Laguna Pueblo, said it’s one thing for state commissions to open up the process for input, and another thing for the states to actually use that feedback in making decisions. “If tribal voices are ignored, then tribal perspectives won’t be considered. You see that in Arizona.”

One issue of contention remains the final map for New Mexico’s 3rd congressional district. Like Arizona’s 1st there is a large percentage of Native American voters.

“Under this current iteration the number of Native Americans in congressional District 3 gets reduced down from 20% to 16%,” Conroy Chino, Acoma, told KRQE television. “And the tribes that I represent feel that will have an impact when it comes to their interests at the congressional level, they will have competing interests from where they sit in the state with, perhaps, the southeastern part of the state.”

The state’s 2nd congressional district, now represented by Republican Yvette Herrrell, Cherokee Nation, would boost Hispanic voters. The district is now narrowly majority hispanic but the new district would be a clear majority at 56 percent.

One Republican lawmaker told The Las Cruces Sun News that the redistricting plan is a “blatant move by Democrats” to capture all three NM seats.

Meanwhile in Kansas, the Republicans are working to make sure that Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, does not win re-election. The state’s Senate president, Susan Wagle, told the Kansas City Star that she can “guarantee you we can draw four Republican congressional maps.”

Davids tweeted in response: “Our political system is broken. We should take the responsibility of redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians so that every community gets the representation that we all deserve.”

Of course many states with a large Native population do not have a district; candidates must run statewide. That was the case in Montana until the most recent census and remains so for Alaska, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

What reform looks like?

It’s easier these days to use mapping software and come up with alternatives that favor “your voters.”

As a recent paper by the Brookings Institution put it: “algorithms got us into this situation. Algorithms must get us out.”

This could be done by using mapping software with generally agreed formulas, such as better representation for communities of interest.

A piece in MIT Technology Review put it this way: “Mathematicians are sharpening new algorithms — open-source tools, developed over recent years — that detect and counter gerrymandering, the egregious practice giving rise to those bestiaries, whereby politicians rig the maps and skew the results to favor one political party over another.”

In other words the computers could take the problem away from the politicians.

Another option for reform is legislation that has already passed the House to amend voting laws and make partisan elections more difficult to maintain without challenge. However that bill is stuck in the Senate where a supermajority of 60 is required to move legislation.

It should also be noted that there is nothing in the Constitution about district elections (other than reapportionment among the states). Congress has alternatives. As the independent organization, FairVote, points out “redistricting is a political disaster – an enormous political train wreck that occurs every ten years. It is a process full of partisan rancor, naked power grabs, unfair representation, and millions of dollars in legal costs. It is an example of American politics at its worst – and all made possible by our single-member district electoral system.”

FairVote’s solution includes proportional representation with multi-member districts.

“Thus the adoption of proportional representation in the United States would in one stroke cut through the Gordian knot of redistricting and gerrymandering,” FairVote said. “It would eliminate all the partisan brawling, endless and expensive legal challenges, stolen seats, and uncompetitive districts that plague our single-member plurality system.”

The Washington Post said many states and local governments already use multi-member districts. The Post reported: “We used a computer algorithm to repeatedly and randomly divide Pennsylvania into six congressional districts containing approximately 2.1 million people each, three times the size of the eighteen districts the state has now. In the tens of thousands of valid maps that resulted, each of these larger districts closely matched the state on key demographic categories, such as age, education, income levels, race, urban or rural. Most important, they also contained fewer lopsided partisan blocs, increasing the chance of competitive elections and reducing the number of wasted votes.”

Native American voters are about 2 percent of the U.S. population and Congress now has five Native American representatives, about 1.149 percent, and parity would mean at least 8 seats in the House.

ICT logo bridge

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.