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The Native Vote Is Crucial This Election—and Under Threat

Despite years of suppression efforts by Republicans, Native voters are a critical bloc in several swing states in 2020.


Speaking with The Washington Post for a cringe-inducing piece about the influx of people moving to Montana, Candace Carr Strauss, the CEO of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, offered a potential selling point: “We are 98 percent Caucasian,” she told the paper. “We haven’t, thankfully, seen a lot of the unrest other places have seen.”

Carr Strauss’s claim is wrong—as the Post notes, the last census marked the state as 89 percent white—but the idea of certain places being havens for whiteness often has very little to do with actual numbers. Seven percent of the state population identifies as Native American, which also isn’t some well-kept secret. The flags of the eight sovereign Indigenous nations whose lands fall within Montana’s boundaries fly directly in front of the state capitol. Contrary to popular belief and the stuff of white fantasy, Native people have not disappeared from the planet—or electoral politics.

As in Nevada and Arizona, among other states, Indigenous voters in Montana have the potential to decide major statewide races for Senate and the presidency. Carr Strauss may have erased Indigenous people from her imagined state, but Republicans in power know they’re there. They’ve legislated accordingly: hamstringing the census, adding voter ID requirements, restricting ballot collection efforts, and reducing mail-in voting and early voting locations. As the final weeks of the election cycle wind down, tribal communities across the country—including in places where their votes will help determine the outcome of Senate seats and the presidency—will try to overcome these barriers and remind Americans of their political weight.

On Wednesday, The New Yorker published a piece by E. Tammy Kim that examined Montana’s two crucial swing voter blocs ahead of the 2020 election: union members and tribal citizens. After all, it was Native voters who helped Democratic Senator Jon Tester win a tight reelection bid in 2018, with Tester claiming majorities in numerous reservation districts. The same proved true in his first run for Senate in 2006, when Native voters pulled the lever for him at a near 2-to-1 margin. It’s in part why Tester has spent the previous 12 years acting as one of the few supporting voices for Native issues on the Senate floor and in committee. Montana’s Native population is once again being called upon in 2020, this time to help elect a second Democrat for Senate in current Governor Steve Bullock. And like Tester, Bullock has recognized that the Native vote is indispensable, making numerous trips to the reservations in the state to try and turn out the vote.

The same is true in Nevada, where Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 2.4 points in a state where Native people constitute just under 2 percent of the population. Just as the Montana tribes pushed Tester into office, Nevada’s Indigenous population was one of the factions that helped elect Senator Harry Reid in his razor-thin 1998 reelection campaign. Similarly, in Arizona, where Joe Biden is polling nearly four points ahead of Trump as of this writing, Native voters, at 5.3 percent of the state’s population, are being leaned on by Democrats to secure the state for the former vice president. As a Democratic operative told Vox earlier this year, “The difference when you have high turnout in the Native community and you convince them to vote for you—that’s the difference between winning and losing.”

This is not to ignore conservative Native voters, who do exist in sizable numbers: North Carolina’s 9th district, home of the Lumbee Tribe, is dependably red; Oklahoma Representatives Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, who make up half of the congressional Native delegation, are both Republican legislators; and the tribal chairman of the Crow Tribe, located in Montana, recently endorsed both Trump and Bullock’s opponent, Republican Steve Daines. But the Republican Party on the whole has not been welcoming when it comes to the surge of registered Native voters. In fact, it has consistently gone out of its way to limit their ability to cast their ballot.

In Montana, as well as Arizona and a host of other states, Republican state legislators, operating under the guise of election security, have introduced and passed bills with the express aim of voter suppression. One such effort that’s been widely replicated has been a ban on the collection of completed ballots for submission at the nearest board of elections. Native voters, many of whom live in rural communities without regular access to mail services or a nearby county board of elections office, are uniquely harmed by these laws—a Montana court even found in September that the state’s ballot collection act was unconstitutional due to its effect on tribal communities. But similar laws in Arizona and North Carolina still stand, with the Supreme Court set to take up the Arizona case after the election.

Early voting access, crucial given the social distancing requirements caused by the pandemic, has also required legal pressure from tribes. In 2014, Jason Gant, South Dakota’s Republican secretary of state, along with the Jackson County auditor, opposed a request for an early voting site for the town of Wanblee, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, while approving one in the majority-white town of Kadoka. It required a lawsuit by four citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe to get the polling site reopened. Likewise, in 2016, two tribes located in Nevada, the Walker River Paiute Tribe and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, won a lawsuit against the state that established early voting and Election Day polling sites in towns located within their respective reservations. But still, as Ethan Doig, working with the Nevada Native Vote Project, told Capital Public Radio, only a third of the tribal communities in the state have access to both an in-person polling location and a ballot drop-off box, leaving the remaining voters facing the prospect of driving up to 100 miles to cast their vote.

Then there’s the voter ID issue, raised most prominently in North Dakota. In 2012, former Senator Heidi Heitkamp won her election by just 3,000 votes, the tightest Senate campaign run that year. Her campaign actively vied for the Native vote in the state, which proved to be a crucial part of her win. Five months later, the Republican state legislature responded by passing a law that required all voters to present a form of ID with a residential address present. This specifically targeted Native voters, as many in the state do not live in a home with a registered street address. It took seven years of legal battles to finally unwind the requirement, with the courts reaching an agreement between the state and tribes to allow for all tribal citizens to vote and Governor Doug Burgum conceding that tribal IDs could be used in place of a state-issued ID.

Compounding all of these preexisting man-made barriers is the pandemic. Tribal nations were hit harder than almost any other group in the United States by the coronavirus due to the federal government’s long-standing refusal to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibilities by allocating adequate funding for the health care facilities and infrastructure updates dearly needed in Indian Country. This failure continues to be paid for with Native lives, while the ability to voice one’s resulting frustration through the ballot box has been hampered.

As noted by the Center for Public Integrity, in New Mexico, tribal officials were forced to close early voting sites during the primaries in June, resulting in 21 fewer early voting stations and 167 fewer polling stations than were available in 2018. In a study published by the University of New Mexico’s Center for Social Policy, the authors concluded, “Due to travel restrictions on Tribal lands and issues associated with access to absentee voting, New Mexico’s current election laws proved inadequate to avoid disproportionately disenfranchising Native American voters during the Covid-19 crisis.”

A separate but adjacent issue arose when it was clear that the pandemic would interrupt the 2020 census, which has historically undercounted Native populations. Like the aforementioned voter suppression efforts, conservatives seized this as an opportunity to further stave off forthcoming redistricting efforts, shortening the count by a month. As with the early voting sites or the ballot-collection bans, this too required a legal challenge, which still may not be enough to save Indian Country from another undercount.

Acknowledging how difficult it remains for Native people to vote, it is nothing short of remarkable that—despite all of the above evidence proving that the effort to stymie the Native vote is alive and well—Native voters across a multitude of states continue to hold the keys to the White House, the Senate, and several governorships. This is the direct result of tribes, tribal organizations, and nonprofit groups in Indian Country spending the past 10 months ensuring that as many Native voters are registered and motivated as possible. Thinking back to the unfortunate Carr Strauss line, it’s clear that she was looking to erase Montana’s Native population as a way to advertise Montana as a haven for white people. But the sentiment underlying her erroneous claim—that Native people are not a notable portion of society and simply deserve to be ignored entirely—is one that might still bite conservatives in the ass this November.