The Power of the Native Vote

Native candidates and constituents hold strong even as COVID-19 creates new barriers for voters

Late afternoon on Election Day, SFR spots two first time voters, Gailene Morgan, 19, and Ganine Morgan, 20, affixing "I Voted" stickers to their sweaters outside of the Intergenerational Center on Tesuque Pueblo.

"I felt nervous coming in today and at the same time I'm happy I got to vote because my voice matters… but I am feeling very anxious for results," Gailene tells SFR as she rounds up other members of the family to snap a commemorative photo in the golden light.

The sisters are among seven women representing four generations of the same family who cast their ballots together at the Tesuque Pueblo polling location on Tuesday, including their great grandmother, Marie Fquinlivan, 90, who says she's voted more times than she can remember.

Collectively, these women embody a historic shift in political power and representation for Native Americans. Marie was already a young woman when Native Americans won the right to vote in New Mexico in 1948. Gailene's grandmother, Reyes Herrera, remembers politicians showing up at the pueblo to campaign in station wagons with billowing flags after Native Americans finally cemented the right to vote across all 50 states in 1962. They all witnessed Rep. Deb Haaland become one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018.

And 2020 is proving to be another historic year for Native Americans seeking both national and state offices across the country. Native voters are playing a key role in pushing the election toward Democratic presidential victory in several states where margins are razor thin.

Yet there are still significant barriers to representation for many Native tribes, including sparse polling locations in Indian Country, and, this year, COVID-19.

On Tuesday, voters elected a record-breaking six Native American congressional candidates to serve in the US House of Representatives. Native candidates also won dozens of races in state and local elections across the country.

In New Mexico, all eight Native American candidates running for seats in the Legislature won their races, and Halaand, who is a member of Laguna Pueblo, was reelected to New Mexico's 1st Congressional District.

Native voters threw their weight almost entirely behind Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the presidential race. In states where several thousand votes can determine the winner, this makes a difference.

In Arizona, where Native people make up 5.6% of eligible voters, the Navajo Times reports that 97% percent of Navajo ballots as of Thursday morning went to Joe Biden, contributing 73,954 votes to what looks to be the state's flip from red to blue.

In New Mexico, 86.7% of votes cast in northern pueblo precincts went to Biden.

Yet despite Native Americans' increasing importance as a voter bloc in some states, denigrating mischaracterizations in national news accounts continue. In the hours after polls closed on Election Day,  CNN broadcast a graphic showing how voters appeared to have cast their ballots in the presidential election, broken down by a confusing mishmash of races and ethnicities. The graphic listed "White," "Latino," "Black," "Asian" and "Something Else."

Native people pushed back quickly. Santa Fe local Ricardo Cate', a cartoonist for the Santa Fe New Mexican, was among the commentators.

The graphic blew up on social media, prompting outrage and parodies highlighting how Native people and issues have long been ignored by mainstream society and rendered invisible by centuries of policies specifically aimed at disenfranchising Native Americans and erasing their language and culture through forced assimilation.

The erasure is longstanding.

According to the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center, the failure of public and private institutions to collect accurate data on Native Americans has impacts in all areas of public life.

"While American Indians and Alaska Natives are an integral and unique part of US society, we continue to be invisible to most other Americans due to an absence of data, accurate media images, and historical and contemporary awareness about Native peoples in schools, healthcare facilities, professions, military service, and daily life," the The National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center states in an explanation of data desegregation, concluding that "the lack of data affects policymaking at federal, tribal and state levels."

Austin Weahkee (Cochiti, Zuni, and Navajo), political director of, tells SFR one of the problems with collecting accurate data on Native voters is that many live off of tribal land in cities such as Albuquerque.

Weahkee says the urban Native vote is extremely difficult to quantify, but it is possible to track the votes of Native people registered in tribal precincts. And the results from that count worry him.

In New Mexico, voter turnout in many Native communities this year was dismally low. Only 48.7% of voters registered in the Picuris Pueblo tribal precinct cast a ballot. In precincts in half a dozen other tribal nations, turnout hovered just over 50%.

"Turnout is not exactly where we wanted it to be for this year, obviously the circumstances are super unique and really challenging, trying to keep everybody safe while also making sure that everyone is able to go out and vote," says Weahkee. "I think the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was huge."

Weahkee says the pandemic was a significant barrier to voting for many Native communities, especially in rural areas.

In some tribal precincts that were particularly hard hit by the virus, he says, authorities chose not to open polling locations for fear of causing spread. Many tribal authorities were unaware of a change to local election law passed in the special legislative session in June that gave tribal leaders more power over how to run their precincts—such as allowing polling locations in tribal precincts to close completely to non-tribal members to stop outsiders from importing the virus. Some polling locations opened at the last minute, and in some precincts there was so much confusion and fear of the virus that many people stayed home.

Weahkee says mail-in ballots expanded some voting opportunities, but that the mail balloting system is far less effective in rural tribal areas where receiving and sending mail is less accessible than in urban areas.

Finally, he says, there were a few tribal precincts where Election Day devolved into worst case scenarios, such as one precinct on the Alamo Navajo Reservation in Socorro County where he received reports that people were told to vote in person on Nov. 3 even if they were sick with COVID-19, despite an outbreak in the community, because so few had returned their absentee ballots by Election Day. He says there were not enough poll workers and there was still a line of around 200 to 300 people half an hour before the location closed.

"Their Election Day was a disaster…they just did not have the support that they needed in order to get their vote out," he says.

Meanwhile, there were also some tribal precincts where things went remarkably well and where turnout was over 70%, including the precincts for Tesuque and Nambe Pueblos in Santa Fe County.

Weahkee says that the pueblos with high voter turnout this year tend to be smaller and closer to large urban areas where tribal members have many more options for dropping off absentee ballots, voting early, or choosing where to go on Election Day, and where COVID-19 restrictions—such as wearing masks—are culturally accepted and enforced.

In fact, Tesuque Pueblo has a far higher rate of voter turnout in this election than any other recognized tribal nation in the state. A whopping 78.7% of voters registered in the Tesuque Pueblo precinct cast a ballot—which also puts the pueblo ahead of the 67.5% of voters who cast ballots statewide, and the 75.6% turnout in Santa Fe County.

Weahkee says many tribes with consistently high turnout have a well established "culture of voter participation—it's been ingrained in them by their leaders from a very young age that it's important to be engaged and involved."

Gailene's family reflects this—her mother says it's a family tradition to come out and vote on Election Day, and that her daughters receive excellent education and encouragement about voting from the community.

For her part, Gailene says she's been dead set on exercising this right since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The issues that matter most to her are those impacting her own community and other communities of color and minority groups.

"The issues that motivate me politically are Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Black Lives Matter, and what's going on at ICE detention centers. Also the rights for LGBTQ people—and just discrimination in general," she says. "I just think my generation needs to be involved now more than ever, because we are the ones who are going to live in the world they leave us, and we need to wake up. I think we are waking up, and that makes me hopeful."

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