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Native American voters overcome barriers in fight for voting access

According to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data, there are 9.7 million people who identify as Native American in the U.S., or 2.9% of the total population.
Native American voters overcome barriers in fight for voting access
Posted at 1:03 PM, Jan 23, 2024

They are a group of voters capable of shaking up swing states — places like Nevada, Wisconsin and Michigan.

"I think what I'm most excited about is that Native Americans are poised to make a huge difference in the upcoming election," said Jacqueline De León, a senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

According to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data, there are 9.7 million people in the U.S. who identify as Native American, or 2.9% of the total population. 

Historically, Indigenous communities have been overlooked during election cycles. But in recent years, the tides of political influence have begun to rise as Native American voter turnout has increased. During the 2020 presidential election, Native American voters in Arizona were credited with helping President Biden secure this swing state.

"Really, Native Americans can swing this upcoming presidential election and certainly effectuate change in their communities — if they get out and vote," De León said.

The Native American Rights Fund is a nonprofit that has provided legal assistance to Native American tribes, organizations and individuals for more than 50 years.

According to the fund's 2020 comprehensive field hearing report, only 66% of the eligible Native American voting population is registered to vote. 

De León says securing voting access for Native American communities has been an uphill battle for decades because of a series of persistent barriers and legal battles, and the fight isn't over.

"What those unreasonable barriers communicate to Native communities is that voting isn't made for them and isn't for them," De León said.

So, what are some of these barriers?

"Many homes across Indian country lack addresses and consequently lack residential mail delivery. So, vote by mail is difficult or requires a substantial trip to a post office that may be a rural post office open very few hours," De León said.

And getting to the ballot box can be a challenge too.

"Too often, polling places are located off the reservation. They require travel over poor roads. They require a car that many impoverished Native Americans simply don't have," De León said.

SEE MORE: What are some issues driving voters to the polls in New Hampshire?

Dismantling these barriers is no easy task, but is a task that organizations like The Rural Utah Project have been taking on. The nonprofit's mission is to empower underrepresented voters through voter registration and education.

Since 2019, The Rural Utah Project has managed to assign addresses needed to register to vote, to more than 3,100 homes within the southeast Utah portion of the Navajo Nation — a process that took four years to complete. They did so by setting folks up with Google Plus Codes, which are addresses based on shortened latitude and longitude coordinates.

Daylene Redhorse is the addressing specialist with the The Rural Utah Project. Her journey began when she realized her home was marked in the wrong precinct.

"And that kind of pushed me out there like, no, no, my people, my Indigenous tribes have a right to have it. The only way to express your opinion is through your vote. And they're not taking that from us," Redhorse said.

Using maps, Redhorse and her team pinned every structure on the Navajo Nation in southeast Utah. From there, they went door to door verifying which were homes, who lived there and securing folks a Google Plus Code if their home didn't have an address  — the first step toward becoming registered voters.

"It took some talking, some convincing. And finally, we gained trust of some of the residents, and come to find out, it had its benefits," Redhorse said.

Redhorse says the Google Plus Codes have also opened the door for better access to emergency and delivery services.

"We still have some people that are skeptical, like, 'Oh, I don't matter. Nobody listens to me.' It's not about that. Put in your say, you know? Express your opinions through your vote. At least you said something," Redhorse said.

Because at the end of the day, "Every American citizen is entitled to representatives that listen to them, that understand their issues and are engaged with them," De León said.  "The bottom line is that Native American votes are valuable."

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