There are a record number of Native American candidates running this year. That’s good, right? But it also begs the question: What would it take to improve voter turnout in Indian Country?
There are more than a hundred days until the next election and there remain many questions about the structure and integrity of elections.
This is important because America is governed by those who vote. And those who can easily vote.
Take Nye County, Nevada. If a voter from the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe wants to cast a ballot on election day, they need to drive to Tonapah. That’s a drive of 137 miles and more than 2 hours each way. And that’s when the weather is good. (The other option is Pahrump in the southern part of the county … a ten-hour round trip.)
Nevada’s solution is a vote-by-mail plan. This is something that many tribal citizens find either impractical or they find the process untrustworthy. Two years ago, Nevada tribes sued the state. Two more polling sites were added, but no new polling locations in Nye County were added, because it was considered too expensive.
“State law gives county officials discretion to not provide in-person voting opportunities if there are not enough registered voters,” said James Tucker, of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker and the Native American Rights Fund. “Unfortunately it’s a really perverse process because we have instances in which there are plenty of people who are eligible to vote, like in the Duck Valley Reservation in northern Nevada, bordering Idaho. There are upwards of about 800 to 900 people eligible to vote, but at the time 2016, only about 175 were actually registered. Because there was no in-person voting location, it makes it even less likely that people are going to want to register to vote.”
Tucker spoke at the Native American Journalists Association conference in Miami last week. The Native American Voting Rights Coalition had held field hearings across the country collecting data and stories about obstacles to voting.
It’s a particular challenge to improve the structure of elections when several states are making it more difficult. North Dakota continues to press (after losing several legal challenges) for restrictions in a state that once prided itself on easy voting that did not require a registration process. As Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, said recently at a Senate hearing, “Why should we have to sue every year in North Dakota to get voting rights for Native people?”
Pew Research reports that most Americans are ready for significant improvements in the voting structure. A large majority, 61 percent, say “significant changes” are needed in the fundamental “design and structure” of American government to make it work for current times.
“More Democrats than Republicans say significant changes are needed in the design and structure of government,” Pew found. “By more than two-to-one (68 percent to 31 percent), Democrats say significant changes are needed. Republicans are evenly divided: 50 percent say significant changes are needed in the structure of government, while 49 percent say the current structure serves the country well and does not need significant changes.”
Then, there is the problem of people not voting anyway. The United States has long been unusual within the developed world for its low turnout in elections. More than 100 million potential voters, just under half of eligible voters, do not vote. And Indian Country is at the short end of that measure, too. According to the Native Vote Project, only 66 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are eligible to vote, compared to 74 percent of eligible non-Hispanic Whites. That means 34 percent of the total Native population over 18 — or 1,000,000 eligible voters — are not registered.
And it’s that potential of a million voters that could upend the system, especially in states with a significant Native American population.
San Juan County, Utah, is a case in point. Structural changes to the voting system, including the creation of districts where Navajos are in the majority, have made it more likely that American Indians will win office. “This is the Alabama of Indian Country,” Tucker said. “There is a racial divide.” The county drew districts to split up the Navajo vote. After that was challenged (and the courts agreed with the Native plaintiffs) the county responded by disqualifying Navajo candidates and voters.
The most recent case, Willie Greyeyes, a candidate for the county commission, was removed from the ballot after living in the district for some 50 years. (Previous: Navajo Democrat Willie Greyeyes removed from ballot.) He voted in every election for the past 26 years, worked on state commissions, and was very public. So the county “allegedly sent a deputy out to his home and said they didn’t see any road tracks going into his house,” Tucker said, and that his mailing address was a post office box was across the border in Arizona. This case is in litigation. “It’s very likely that because we have explicit discriminatory purpose here that we expect that in the end … more direct federal court oversight of what San Juan County is doing because they are deliberating trying to disenfranchise Navajo voters.”
How explicit is the Native vote disenfranchisement? Tucker said statement was made by one of the candidates in 2012: “Bruce Adams has been very successful preventing the expenditure of county funds on reservation projects for which the county has no responsibility. Even though two-thirds of the people who live in San Juan County, who do pay county taxes, and who do bring in federal funding to the county, happen to be Navajos living on the reservation, on the Navajo Nation. That’s what we are contending with.”
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports
(The National Congress of American Indians leads the Native vote coalition. NCAI is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)