I’m Native American: Our Fundamental Voting Rights Are Under Attack
An activist from Arizona writes about all of the voting obstacles her people encounter—especially this year.
Imagine living in a state larger than West Virginia that has only 13 grocery stores. Imagine if only half the homes in your state had access to broadband internet, and yours didn’t. Imagine one-third of homes in the state lacked electricity and/or running water, and your home was one of them.
Imagine you couldn’t get mail delivered at home, and instead had to drive 45 minutes, maybe even two hours, to a post office to pick it up. Imagine you lived six hours away from state offices, and had to make the trip every time you needed to access basic governmental services like obtaining a driver’s license or government identification. Imagine the road you took to get there was unpaved, just like 10,000 more miles of road in your state. Imagine you don’t have your own car, but instead have to share with members of your family to get from place to place.
Imagine you can’t find a job, or your job doesn’t pay well, and every penny earned must be spent thoughtfully.
Now, imagine you’re living in this state during our current pandemic and it’s hit devastatingly hard. There are not enough hospitals, doctors or nurses to handle the outbreak, so traveling medical professionals have to be called upon. Your state government restricts the movement of everyone on the weekends to slow the spread. You live at home with your grandparents, parents and kids. Your home is not large enough for you to maintain social distancing, so any virus that gets inside will easily spread. You have personally lost friends and members of your extended family. Naturally, you’re worried. You want to register and vote in November. Tell me, how will you do that?
This isn’t a hypothetical on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, or for many of the 22 tribes living throughout the state. There are more than 19.8 million acres of tribal land, and living on them can be starkly different than life outside. Voting was already fraught with barriers for Native Americans in Arizona prior to the pandemic. Now, cracks in the system that routinely fail Native voters have spread and grown into chasms that require large scale institutional efforts to remedy.
The Voting System Wasn’t Made for Native Americans; Voting by Mail Isn’t Any Better
COVID-19 has completely changed our political landscape. County and state officials are imploring people to vote by mail because it is an effective way to manage an election from a public health standpoint. But for Native Americans living on tribal lands, it’s not a frictionless system.
Native Americans in Arizona do not have equal access to mail. Non-Hispanic whites are 350 percent more likely to have at-home mail delivery than Native Americans. For voters living on tribal lands, mail is primarily delivered to a post office box that can be 45 minutes to two hours away. Given the time and distance it takes to get there, many people only check their box about once a month. There are approximately 48 post offices on tribal lands in Arizona, servicing 19.8 million acres of land and over 100,000 residents. Unsurprisingly, this does not provide enough individual post office boxes for all residents, and many families, friends and households have to share. Some post offices have limited hours, and many are not open on the weekends.
Voting by mail was designed with a vision of voters walking to their home mailbox, walking home to fill it out and walking back to the mailbox to send it. It wasn’t designed to accommodate Native voters who have to travel two hours down dirt roads each way, or for monolingual elders who only speak their indigenous language and require in-person translation. It was not designed for Native Americans who have to share a post office box with ten to 15 other people, since the state passed a ban on carrying ballots that don’t belong to an immediate family member, ward or household member.
Lack of equitable access to mail is one barrier Native Americans face, but there are many more: lack of equitable access to in-person early-voting opportunities, cumbersome election laws, language barriers, voter identification laws, voter intimidation and misinformation. Simple tools like looking up your polling location don’t help Native voters who don’t have addresses. Online voter registration (that doesn’t accept tribal ID or non-standard addresses) is wholly inaccessible to voters living on tribal lands. All of these build upon socioeconomic and infrastructure barriers, such as underdeveloped roads, lack of access to broadband internet, housing, electricity and running water.
I Believe in the Power of Voting, Even If the Government Has Failed Us
I have been involved in election protection efforts in Arizona since 2016, and with Native American voting access in the state since 2018. I’m a member of a tribe in Oklahoma and consider myself a part of the community of urban Native Americans in Phoenix. My work in this field can be unbearably frustrating because I spend the vast majority of my time convincing people that these barriers for Native Americans even exist, that Native American voters matter and that it is unlawful and offensive for us to have to ask for a right as fundamental as voting.
Despite the years of advocacy and awareness-raising on the part of tribes and tribal advocates, these calls have largely gone unheard. Only now are election administrators reaping what the state has sown for them. Now that state and county employees would prefer to have everyone vote by mail, they can feel some of the effects of the institutional failings of this country toward Native Americans, and how election laws have neglected to meet our reality.
The right to vote for Native Americans in Arizona is fairly new, only achieved in 1948, and it’s been an insecure right ever since. Poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation efforts have continued to keep Native Americans from the ballot. Tribal communities have worked to increase civic participation and create generations of Native voting blocs nearly from scratch. For many non-Native voters, voting is a forgettable activity. For Native Americans, reaching and depositing a ballot is a victory against centuries of discrimination and disenfranchisement. There are elders who vote because they have a living memory of a time where Native Americans couldn’t.
It Isn’t Easy for Native Americans to Vote, Which Is Why We Need to Do It
Constantly having to fight for a basic right is exhausting.
In my work, I have to grapple with how to encourage Native people to vote when we know it’s unduly difficult, when we know the ways, past and present, that the government has failed us. I encourage people to vote out of hope for a better future, but even as we protest, raise awareness, advocate for change and engage in all the other forms of civic engagement we have available, we can also recognize that the government has failed their most basic obligations to us. Voting is one tool in an arsenal we can harness to build a better future where Native people do not just survive, but thrive.
COVID-19 has been life-changing and will continue to be so. It will take decades for us to heal from the wounds it has caused, and we can never regain the lives lost. For the sake of democracy, this moment should be one where we do everything possible to increase access for marginalized communities who have been bearing the brunt of this pandemic.