Ben Pryor, Rebekah Herrick, and James A. Davis
It’s Election Day. Arizona is a pivotal state for Democrats. Although a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1996, Joe Biden has led Donald Trump in the polls by +2.6 points. Moreover, former astronaut Mark Kelly has led incumbent Republican Senator Martha McSally by +4.4 points.
Democrats need to pick-up 3 seats (with the vice-presidency) to gain the majority.
As of late, Democrats have been able to mobilize minority voters in the Grand Canyon State. Arizona just elected their first Democratic US Senator – Krysten Sinema – in 22 years, picking up Jeff Flake’s old Senate seat. Compared to the 2016 election, 13 of Arizona’s 15 counties shifted left in the 2018 Senate election. Not to mention, former Senator Jeff Flake’s endorsement of Biden, along with more than 100 former Senator John McCain staffers.
Indigenous voters in Arizona are integral to the Democrats’ opportunity to seize unified government in the fall. Here’s why.
Despite being an often-overlooked member of the electorate, it’s not unheard of for Indigenous voters to swing elections. Indigenous voters have made the difference in recent federal elections. Examples are Senator Lisa Murkowski vis-a-vis 2010 and Senator Jon Tester vis-a-vis 2018.
Although Indigenous political identification hasn’t historically comported neatly to one party, new research has found that a large part of Indigenous Americans tend to be Democrats and a majority have felt disrespected by something Donald Trump has said or done.
According to the US Census, Arizona is home to the third highest percentage of Indigenous Americans, with more than 330,000 self-identifying as Indigenous American. Research finds that around 72% of Indigenous Americans are registered to vote and 65% reported doing so in the 2016 presidential election. Trump narrowly carried Arizona in 2016 by 3.5 points, whereas other recent Republican presidential candidates carried the state comfortably by 6 to 10 points.
Thus, if Indigenous Americans turnout in states like Arizona they could affect the outcome of several close elections. To do so they will have to overcome Arizona’s long history of disenfranchising Indigenous voters, turnout and vote.
To what degree they will is a question.
How do Indigenous voters compare to other American voters?
Although research on Indigenous voters is sparse and has produced confounding results, common wisdom suggests that they vote at relatively low levels in US federal elections given their low-levels of socio-economics, systematic disenfranchisement in the US, and their sordid relationship with the federal government. Our research, however, questions common wisdom.
Our recently published research paints a complex picture. Self-identified Indigenous Americans are less likely to vote than whites or Blacks, but vote about the same as Latinx, and are more likely to vote than Asian Americans.
Our research is based on over 700,000 surveys conducted by the US Census’ Current Population Survey and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and covers presidential and congressional elections from 2006 through 2016. This large number allowed us to compare Indigenous voters with other racial and ethnic groups. The data also rely on validated votes as well as self-reports of voting.
What we learned about Indigenous voters
We also wanted to know what influenced the likelihood that Indigenous Americans vote.
We tested several state characteristics that had the potential to affect Indigenous voting rates. State characteristics such as state voter identification laws, tribal gaming, being a resident of a state with a large Indigenous population, in a state with a history of disenfranchising Indigenous peoples, or living on a reservation. But our analyses found no significant relationship between the likelihood Indigenous Americans vote and these conditions.
Instead, we found that similar to Americans generally, Indigenous voters tend to be older, have higher levels of income and education, have a greater political interest, and tend to be married. This is consistent with previous analyses on socio-economic predictors of voting.
Interestingly, other research finds that Indigenous Americans who identify more as “American,” rather than “tribal members” or “Indigenous Americans,” are more likely to vote.
Many Indigenous Americans report facing discrimination and intimidation when attempting to register or vote. Moreover, research is consistent in finding high levels of distrust of the federal government by Indigenous peoples. This distrust often bleeds over into the federal electoral process, which can result in lower turnout.
Looking to the General Election
What will likely complicate the ability of Indigenous Americans to vote is COVID-19. In Maricopa County, which has 60 percent of the voters, Indigenous populations are four times as likely to test positive than white residents.
Arizona’s Indigenous population is more susceptible to the virus due to unfavorable living conditions and underlying health conditions, especially on reservation areas. They constitute 11 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, and yet represent 5 percent of the population.
At the start of the pandemic, the Trump administration delayed much needed COVID-19 funding to tribal communities in Arizona and around the country. The move forced the Navajo Nation to sue the Administration before they ultimately released the allotted funds.
Understandably, some officials in the state are pushing for all mail-in voting to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but this move may not be as beneficial to Indigenous voters as settler voters. Many Indigenous peoples share mailboxes or live some distance away from where their mail is delivered.
What may be the best option to improve Indigenous voting rates is get out the vote efforts. Get out the vote campaigns are actively encouraging Indigenous voters to take advantage of early in-person voting, a process that is typically more convenient. In late August, six Navajo Nation citizens filed a lawsuit against Arizona’s Secretary of State for flexibility from an election law that requires absentee ballots to arrive (rather than postmarked) by Election Day. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the lower court’s decision to deny a suit brought by six Navajo tribal members.
To be sure, Indigenous Americans are an important voting bloc in Arizona, and their voices have the potential to be more impactful to this election than in the history of the US.
Ben Pryor, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, researches American political science and behavior.
Rebekah Herrick is a professor and interim department head of political science at Oklahoma State University.
James A. Davis is an emeritus professor of political science at Oklahoma State University.