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Taking back Native voting rights

Christopher Lomahquahu

PHOENIX — Voting is the centerpiece of grassroots efforts across tribal communities in states that have large populations of Indigenous voters. For example, in rural parts of Arizona and Montana, voter education groups are leading initiatives to spread the word about why every vote counts, especially during a presidential election year.

Jaynie Parrish, Diné, is the executive director of Arizona Native Vote. She talked about her entry into voter education after working in various voter campaigns. “I was familiar with the various types of campaigns, such as those associated with public education and school funding, including a campaign to elect Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, who ran for public office in Montana,” Parrish said.

Her organization primarily focuses on high school students by teaching juniors and seniors about democracy from an Indigenous perspective. Parrish said the goal is to establish a cohesive partnership with the students about why voting is important, while encouraging them to register to vote.

“Arizona Native Vote is in a constant state of growth, which means hiring more individuals to support the organization in the area of communications and media, in order to get the word out about voter information in a part of the state that are ‘news deserts,’” Parrish said.

Related: IndigiPolitics: Native vote 2024

Arizona has two at least two races that will be closely watched come Election Day, one which includes Democrat candidate and former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who is running for a House seat in the state’s second congressional district.

U.S. Rep. Reuben Gallego, a Democrat in a Phoenix metro district, has started his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Kristin Sinema, who will not seek reelection.

Gallego’s challenger for the Senate is Republican candidate Kari Lake, who previously ran for Arizona governor in 2022. Lake, a denier of the 2022 election results, filed legal claims about the legitimacy of votes cast during her run for governor, which have been dismissed by Arizona Supreme Court judges. Both races, including the presidential race, could see Native voters making a difference. The Native Vote helped Joe Biden and Mark Kelly secure the presidential seat and U.S. Senate seat, respectively.

Attendees hold signs to promote voting at the Western Native Voice membership conference, on March 22-23, 2024 in Great Falls, Montana. (Photo courtesy of Western Native Voice)

In Montana a closely watched race will be for incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. He faces a competitive race against six other candidates, a majority who are Republican. Native voters in Montana could play a huge part in Tester’s reelection, according to Politico.

A voting interest

Parrish said it is important to maintain a continued presence in the communities and schools they work in, such as in-person discussions and updates in Navajo, Coconino and Apache counties.

She also introduced the idea of including local matriarchs into the organization’s outreach, because they are able to make connections on the past and present issues. Parrish made an interesting analogy. Compared to other professions like medicine doctors and law lawyers, there has to be a process to develop and continue the new generations of voters by fostering their interest in the idea of voting.

Parrish said among older Indigenous groups, they take on more of a responsibility to vote, partly due to the generational mindset of always going through the voting process, which is that it’s a part of their lifestyle.

While the concept of voting may come easier to the older generation of Indigenous voters, Parrish said that the goal is to create an “awakening” among the youth, to help them understand how their vote counts within their local community.

“It’s about understanding why voting matters and the historical path Indigenous people took to earning the right to vote, including how policies are shaped by people that are elected to positions that affect their lives,” she said.

Educators and students from Chinle High School on the Navajo Nation take part in a Indigenous Democracy Class, hosted by Arizona Native Vote, in Chinle, Ariz., on Feb. 18, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Native Vote)

Although providing voter information is part of the Arizona Native Vote’s goal, her organization encourages individuals like the youth to be more informed about how the Indigenous communities interact with the state and federal government, and that their community is part of a larger picture of governments working together.

The impacts of voter legislation on Indigenous voter rights

Jacquelin De León, Native American Rights Fund staff attorney, talked about NARF’s work to support Indigenous communities to overcome challenges related to voting rights, redistricting and suppression.

“We’ve been conducting analyses across the country to understand what these compositions are. We also track locally, and work with local organizations that may alert us or tip us off to situations on the ground,” De León said.

She said local organizations will contact NARF about the issues they face, initiating the legal process, such as identifying the violation and then proceed with legal action. Although NARF’s staff attorneys assist with the legal preparation and representation on the part of an Indigenous organization or community, they cannot take every case.

“We continue to see voting rights violations. We’ve consistently been bringing new cases every year. And there’s more cases than we have the capacity to cover,” De León said. Despite this challenge, NARF continues to track the activities in states across the country that are in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Members from the surrounding Indigenous community attend an open house hosted by Western Native Voice headquarters that was held on March 11-12, 2024, in Billings, Montana. (Photo courtesy of Western Native Voice)

Recent cases in North Dakota, Montana and Nebraska have seen each state’s legislation shut down after being challenged by local Indigenous groups, who saw these political maneuvers as a form of voting rights violations.

This year, the Montana Supreme Court overruled two laws, House Bill 176 and House Bill 530, that placed voter restrictions on Election Day registration and third-party ballot assistance in rural areas of the state. Among the most rural communities in Montana are the Indigenous population that were most impacted by the defunct laws.

Western Native Voice, based in Billings, Montana, with nine other plaintiffs in the case, were represented by NARF, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Harvard Election Law Clinic, challenged the HB 176 and HB 530, that violated the states constitution, that is meant to uphold equal access to voting rights.

Others represented in the case were: the Blackfeet Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

“This lawsuit was on the measure of House Bill 176, which would have ended Election Day registration. Montana has had that for, you know, over 15 years now. And it’s kind of like a norm for new voters who relied on election day registration,” said Ronnie Jo Horse, Western Native Voice executive director and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota and descendant of Northern Cheyenne nation.

Horse said the other measure, HB 530 barred the paid third-party ballot collection, which would have impacted rural Indigenous communities, where many don’t have transportation to reach the polls. If the law were to stay, it meant that many Indigenous voters would not have their ballots counted.

“It’s just one of the duties that we have our community organizers do. Native American voters living on reservations specifically, disproportionately rely on election day voter registration and valid assistance, especially like our elders, during the pandemic,” Horse said.

She said it wasn’t just a win for Indigenous communities, but for everyone in Montana, because most voters live in rural areas of the state. “Here in Montana, we have a million people in the entire state. I always let people know that we are rural, because everything feels spread out here, and again, we only have a million people,” Horse said.

De León said the threats to Indigenous voter rights is concerning, because of the drastic measures states have attempted to limit individuals from taking part in the voting process.

“These laws of supposed neutral applicability are not neutral. They’re intended to make it more difficult for certain populations to get out and vote,” De León said.

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