Native voters could swing close races if turnout is high, advocates say

By: - November 7, 2022 3:51 pm

A Navajo woman stands in line to vote. Photo by Rick Scibelli | Getty Images

During the 2020 elections, Native voters on tribal land went to the polls at higher numbers than ever before, and Native voting advocates hope to see that kind of momentum in the midterms.

Arizona has one of the largest Native voting populations in the country, with more than 305,000 of voting age, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Indigenous people make up 6% of Arizona’s overall population.

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Indigenous people in Arizona didn’t have the right to vote until 1948 when the Arizona Supreme Court overturned a ban. But even after gaining that right, Native voters still face obstacles to casting their ballot, from voter suppression to racial discrimination.

Historically, Native voters typically vote for Democrats, and when tribal nations come together, they can give Democrats an edge in close races. Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRPIMC) Intergovernmental Relations Project Manager Angela Willeford said that candidates need to visit tribal nations to understand them.

“I need you to understand that Native communities, when we show up to the polls, we can work as a voting bloc,” Willeford said. “We are strong. We are powerful.” 

In the SRPIMC, Willeford said that after redistricting, their tribal lands now sit in Congressional District 1, a swing district. 

“We need to hold our candidates that are running for office accountable,” she said. “They need to uphold that trust responsibility for tribes.”

She said that there is a 2.5% margin that can swing the election, and the SRPIMC is a 2% population of the vote in that district. That means that the votes coming from the tribe can determine a race.

“They need to come and visit our community and understand we are part of Arizona,” she added. “These candidates need to understand that we do have a seat at the table, and it’s better for them to have that government-to-government relationship with us now so they can understand our needs.”

Willeford said everyone looks at the numbers, which leads campaigns and candidates to those pockets of people because they know they’re going to vote.

“We know everyone’s going to the Navajo Nation because they’re a huge voting block,” Willeford said, and that’s understandable because they’re the largest tribe in the U.S.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez commends the Navajo voter turnout from 2020, and he is asking voters to do the same for the midterm elections.

“It’s critical that the Navajo Nation stand up strong once again,” Nez said. “We need congressional leaders to be reelected, to be elected that know and have a heart for Indian Country.”

During the 2018 midterm elections, the counties with the highest Native voter turnout were Coconino, Apache, and Navajo County. Voters in tribal precincts backed Democrat David Garcia for governor and Democrat Tom O’Halleran for U.S. House: 83% voted for Garcia and 72% backed O’Halleran, according to turnout data.

Navajo community activist Debbie Nez-Manuel said that when races are close, it’s important for candidates and campaigns to make time for tribal communities because they turn out to vote. 

“The lack of participation is going to prove that we are not doing our jobs in engaging all communities and we need to improve that,” Nez-Manuel said. 

When it comes to engaging with communities of color, Nez-Manuel said that non-Natives need to remember that they can not leave out Indigenous communities.

“It really needs to be stated clearly that people of color include Native Americans, and all funders, donors (and) institutions should be engaging Native Americans,” she added.

Throughout Native voting history, Willeford said there have always been roadblocks against tribal communities and their ability to participate in democracy. 

Willeford said their efforts to get people out to vote was a massive team effort for the SRPIMC. They’ve hosted voter registration drives, phone banks, and put up billboards. SRPIMC launched its voting efforts in May with a get-out-to-vote campaign called “May the Vote Be with You.” 

She said that, following the 2020 election, many Native voters may be put off the idea of voting or may not trust the process. So, the SRPMIC wanted a way to connect with more of their younger Tribal members, which is why they looked for themes that connect with young people. 

Willeford said after their May campaign, they landed on a more permanent theme that was inspired by Native slang used in the FX series “Reservation Dogs,” which is “skoden” and “stoodis” slang in some Indigenous communities for “let’s go, then” and “let’s do this.” Willeford said their team ended up going with SkoVoteDen. 

“Our tribal community understands the importance for our community members to play a role in democracy and make sure that their vote counts,” Willeford said. “Now that we are here, we need to make sure that we’re standing up and voting for individuals that represent tribal communities.”

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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