One of the first things Torey Dolan did on her 18th birthday was to register to vote in California.
“I was so excited,” said Dolan, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and recent juris doctor graduate at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “I registered online, and when I first voted, I went to the school that was by my house, didn’t have to bring my ID or anything like that. I just got my ballot, I voted, I got my sticker. It was really easy.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Phoenix to start her law school journey when she discovered that voting wasn’t as easy for others.
“In my first year of law school, I volunteered for the Native Vote project at the Indian Legal Clinic and I was stationed at Gila River (Indian Community), just outside helping anybody who had issues voting on election day,” she said. “I remember one girl had just turned 18 and was denied a standard ballot for ID issues, and that was her first experience voting.”
There are so many complicated laws that make it hard to vote in Indian Country. Strict ID laws, remote polling locations, finding transportation, a reliance on post office boxes, non-standard addresses, and, of course, language translation issues.
On college campuses, the problems include long lines to on-campus polling locations that may impact the student’s class attendance. At last year’s midterm elections, ASU students stood in line for more than two hours. Dolan worries the same thing will happen again in 2020.
“To see that line broke my heart because voting is so important,” she said. “It makes me think, ‘Okay, who’s walking away? Who has class? Who has work? Who has kids? Who can’t wait all day to vote?’”
Among college campuses across the country, Native student-led initiatives aim to combat these barriers through community outreach, education and political engagement to encourage increase in Native voter turnout.
At ASU, law students at the Indian Legal Clinic take part in the Get Out To Vote project, which registers student voters on campus and community members. They also spearhead the Arizona Native Vote Protection Election Project which ensures that tribal members have access to the polls and prevent voter disenfranchisement.
“The Election Protection project is more suited for law students because it’s about applying the laws to protect the right to vote,” said the law clinic's director Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Pointe’au’chien Indian Tribe. “In this, the students are the leaders in ensuring that counties are following the laws during elections.”
Students also offer trainings and outreach before election day, such as visiting American Indian Study classes on campus to discuss how to register to vote, the proper IDs in Arizona, and also the history of voting for Native people in the state.
VOTE MAP: Native Vote Fellow Torey Dolan’s Google Map that highlights the polling locations across Arizona’s tribal communities.
Law students also play a helping hand on election day where some are assigned to polling locations and others respond to incidents via the clinic’s voting hotline. For Dolan, answering the hotline for the 2018 midterm elections showed her that more work needs to be done for voters in Arizona.
“We got a record number of phone calls, which is good because it means a lot of people know to call us for help,” she said. “But there were calls where I had to tell people, ‘I’m sorry.’ More work needs to be done to mitigate these problems before they happen, not just respond to them on election day.”
As the Indian Legal Program’s first-ever Native Vote fellow, Dolan says it is her goal to be a resource for Arizona tribes and tribal members who may have questions about voting.
“As a Native Vote fellow, my plan for 2020 is to collaborate with other voting rights groups to increase our impact and ensure that Native people in Arizona can easily access the polls,” she said.
At Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, student political engagement takes the form of outreach, lobbying efforts and unique opportunities available for its all-Native student body.
“In Spring of 2018, we had an event just for our female population here called Running Start Elect Her,” said Rhonda LeValdo, Acoma Pueblo, a professor in Media Communications. “It encourages young college women to run for their student senate. Hopefully it’ll trickle down to when our students leave to be involved in their tribe, city and county governments.”
For Haskell alumna Lindsey Robinson, a member of the Osage Nations, her political involvement as a student has inspired her to consider running for the House of Representatives in the future.
“The Haskell student-body is still shaping and molding (politically),” Robinson said, “but one thing that really made my university distinct was the way we incorporate our cultures into the political realm in a way that shows mutual respect. I definitely recommend other colleges and universities to incorporate cultural values, too, into their political engagement.”
In her undergraduate studies, Robinson served as president of the Haskell’s student senate and was an Alpha Pi Omega sorority member where she and other students lobbied to make voting more accessible to students at Haskell and Lawrence.
“Students come from reservations where their addresses and P.O. boxes don’t qualify as registered housing departments,” she said, “so to have more students be recognized as Lawrence community members and have accessibility in upcoming elections, we made it more accessible for them to connect with voting back at home.”
Voting drives were held on campus not only to get the students prepared for election day, but to empower them on the civic act of voting.
“Attending Haskell (exemplifies to me) its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Indigenous students to be surrounded by family and different tribal communities,” Robinson said. “In turn, it develops students into leaders, and we want that for our youth. Make your voices heard on why you should vote. Be empowered when you vote.”
For Dolan, her next step this new 2019-2020 school year is to share Robinson’s same message.
“There’s always a variety of perspectives I tell Native students, such as, ‘Find motivation in your own family’s history.” she said. “How has the government hurt your family? Did they get a say? How has it hurt your tribe? Did your tribe get a say? How did your tribe navigate it? If an elderly Navajo woman who only speaks in Navajo, has trouble walking, makes a point to head into the polls, and is willing to wait for a translator and slowly go through the whole ballot, I think it’s important.”
Taylor Notah is a Diné journalist originally from the Navajo Nation. She works as senior editor for Arizona State University's Turning Points Magazine.
Disclosure: Rhonda LeValdo serves on the Indian Country Today, LLC, board of directors.
Cover photo: Torey Dolan at the ASU law school library in Phoenix.