The Native vote has become increasingly influential, with the ability to determine whole elections in several states across the country.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski often credits her win to the Alaska Native vote. The Native vote swung the election for U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, said Jacqueline De León, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in a briefing panel Oct. 13. During the 2020 presidential election, the Native vote in Arizona came out to give President Joe Biden a victory, the first time in more than two decades that the staunchly red state went blue. It doesn’t end there. Elections in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada, can all be swayed by the Native vote.
“Native American votes are being excluded from the table because there is power in these votes,” De León said.
Historically, the Native vote has been under attack from unfair voting ID laws that disproportionately impact Indigenous communities, to gerrymandering, lack of polling locations in rural areas, and the use of at-large voting systems.
“Across the country, we have seen intentional and purposeful discrimination against Native American communities and we are banding together in order to fight back against that,” De León said. “We are also encouraging Native Americans across the country to get out, push past these barriers in order to vote. The reason that these barriers exist is because of the power and potential of the Native American vote.”
It is now less than 30 days until the midterm election.
The Republican Party was forecasted to gain seats in the House and Senate but the striking down of Dobbs v. Jackson, the landmark case that previously ensured a person’s right to abortion care, has made everything more unpredictable than it already was.
This is the first election with the new redistricted maps using the 2020 Census numbers. An unusual census count considering many Indigenous nations closed their communities to outsiders and tribal citizens who lived outside the community due to the pandemic. It made obtaining an accurate count more difficult to achieve. It is clear that once again, Indigenous communities were severely undercounted.
“In this cycle, there’s been a radical undercount of the Native American population and unfortunately, that just affects redistricting,” De León said. “When you're drawing the maps, they use the census numbers.”
Redistricting has impacted the Native vote in states like New Mexico and South Dakota. Congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years to give fair representation in Congress. However, gerrymandering or unfair voting systems (like the at-large system) can occur to impact the influence of the Native vote.
(Related: It’s Census time)
It has also affected Indigenous candidates running for office.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, a Kansas Democrat, is in a more competitive district. The change is only slight, as noted by Jordan James Harvill, national program director for Advance Native Political Leadership.
“(Cook’s Political Report) has moved her partisan voter index from a plus two Democratic district to a plus one,” Harvill told ICT. “That's not drastic and I don't think it's actually her biggest issue.”
The partisan voting index shows if a district leans Democratic or Republican compared to the rest of the country. In Davids’ district, it leans less blue, but Harvill said that’s not the problem for her.
Davids’ biggest issue is voter turnout during a midterm election year, which often sees lower voter turnout.
She needs to get as many of the 170,000 voters who voted for her in 2018 to head back to the polls during a midterm election. The year Davids was first elected, in 2018, brought record voter turnout, 53 percent of the citizen voting-age population. This percent is close to reaching a low voter turnout during a presidential election cycle.
The base of Republican voters who will come out and vote in every election for Kansas’ congressional district 3 is around 130,000. Historically, Democratic candidates were only getting about 90,000.
“When we're trying to think about what turnout might be, it's incredibly difficult to tell after a redistricting cycle,” Harvell said.
Redistricting, inflation, the Dobb’s decision and the president’s low approval rating all have impacts on the election.
In Kansas, voters came out to secure the right to access abortion care. The Cook’s Political Report has Davids’ district as a toss-up, meaning it could go either way. FiveThirtyEight has forecasted also as a toss-up but favoring Davids slightly.
“Sharice Davids is considered a game changer candidate for Victory Fund. She has an EMILY’s List endorsement,” Harvill said. EMILY’s List is the largest women’s political committee and resource in the nation. “She has a ton of institutional support and she is deeply competitive in her fundraising, which is really important right now. She's going to need a lot of money in that district in order to keep turnout high.”
Davids is running against Republican Amanda Adkins. Adkins has been endorsed by other Republicans including U.S Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, Cherokee, representing New Mexico’s congressional district 2.
In New Mexico, the Democratic trifecta has carved up the more conservative part of the state that was almost wholly in congressional district 2, the southern half of the state. With the new congressional map, the old district 2 is spread across all three districts, meaning the solidly blue districts in central and northern New Mexico have taken on more conservative voters from southern New Mexico.
This has turned the district from red leaning to a toss-up race. FiveThirtyEight has Herrell only slightly favored. Cook’s Political Report has the race as a toss-up. This will be a more competitive race for Herrell than in 2020, where she won with 20,000 votes over incumbent Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat. In 2018, Torres Small won by a small margin, less than 4,000 votes, over Herrell.
Before that, Republican Steve Pearce held congressional district 2 for 14 years.
In April, a state district judge cleared the way for the Republican Party of New Mexico to challenge the congressional map that divvies up a conservative area of the state into three congressional districts, rejecting a motion by Democrats who sought to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit by the GOP and six allied plaintiffs holds implications for a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico where Herrell is the incumbent. Last week, the New Mexico Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January. The court will decide if the newly redraw districts in New Mexico amount to a political gerrymandering by the Democratic trifecta in the state, meaning the state House, Senate and governor’s office are held by the party.
“These congressional maps were ramrodded through the Democrat-led legislature for political gain. This is not a political issue but a fairness issue—we want to ensure that all the voices of New Mexicans are protected and represented by these maps, regardless of their political beliefs,” Steve Pearce, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said in a press release. “The Court recognizes that we have strong evidence to support our claim of blatant illegal gerrymandering that rips apart communities of interest and disenfranchises voters across the state. RPNM will always stand for fairness, the rule of law, and the core principles of our democracy.”
Herrell is running against Democrats Gabe Vasquez and Eliseo Luna, a write-in candidate.
According to July campaign finance data, Herrell has raised over double what Vasquez has. A well-funded campaign has an influence on how well a candidate will do at the polls. In a competitive race like this one, it could make a difference on whether or not Herrell gets reelected.
In some states, redistricting is used as a way to limit the influence of the Native vote in counties with a high Native American population. In South Dakota, districting in Lyman County has consistently used an at-large voting system that limited the influence of the Native vote.
“Then came Lyman County,” said OJ Semans, co-founder and co-director of Four Directions Native Vote. “What they did was they have at-large districts. So, what they've been able to do for the past 100 plus years was keep every Native off the county commission.”
The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe sued Lyman County for this tactic that breaks up the Native vote ensuring that any candidate of choice could not be elected to the Board of Commissioners.
Lyman County was ordered to redraw the districts but wasn’t able to do it in time. Then, the county requested that the redrawing of the districts wait until 2026. This was denied and the county was ordered to comply with the Voting Rights Act by the next election in 2024.
“Although the order recognized the lack of time for a remedy this November, the Court’s order is a win for Native American voting rights,” Samantha Kelty, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said in a press release. “Lyman County’s delays prevented a VRA-compliant general election this year. We look forward to the opportunity to win at trial to ensure Native voters will finally have a voice on the Lyman County Board of Commissioners.”
The at-large voting system is also being used in Benson County, North Dakota. Spirit Lake Tribe filed a complaint against the county earlier this month. For over two decades, the county has been under a consent decree and ordered to move from an at-large voting system to a by district voting system that would allow the Native vote to elect a candidate of their choice to two of the five commissioner seats.
In 2014, the county commissioners voted to keep the at-large voting system, disregarding the consent decree. Last December, the Benson County Redistricting Board voted to continue this legacy despite testimony from Spirit Lake chairman, Douglas Yankton, informing the board of the consent decree that has ordered the county to comply with the Voting Rights Act and North Dakota law that protects the rights of Native American voters.
Despite making up 46 percent of the county’s voting population, the Native vote could not elect a candidate of their choice due to the at-large voting system.
In northwest New Mexico, the Navajo Nation is suing San Juan County, where 40 percent of the population is Native American. Part of the Navajo Nation is located in San Juan County. The county packed all of the Native vote into one district where they would be represented by only one county commissioner.
“Like many regions with large populations of American Indian voters, New Mexico and San Juan County have a lengthy history of submerging and suppressing the participation of those voters in the political process,” the complaint read. “Despite comprising fewer than 40 percent of the County’s residents, Non-Hispanic White voters control the election outcomes in four out of the five Board of Commissioner districts.”
The Native American voting block should be able to elect two of the five county commissioners. As of right now, they could only elect one candidate of their choice.
The complaints in San Juan and Benson counties are ongoing.
“These redistrictings are always done to ensure that the non-Natives are able to keep control of the local and county and state government,” Semans said.
*Correction: This story was updated on Oct. 18 to correctly reflect the status of the redistricting lawsuit in New Mexico.
The AP contributed to this report.
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