- In 2020, Native American voters turned out in record numbers, and were integral to President-elect Joe Biden's victory in key states like Arizona.
- Native American and Alaska Native organizers from around the country told Insider that Native American voters, especially those living on reservation lands, still face barriers to voting.
- The physical distance required to get to a polling place, lack of traditional mailing addresses and consistent mail delivery, and poor broadband connectivity pose created difficulties casting a ballot.
- With counties facing limited resources, Native voters ended up getting the short end of the stick in many communities when it came to accessing in-person voting locations, ballot drop-boxes, and mail delivery.
- "Though the Native turnout was 'successful,' and it was in a lot of ways successful and higher than it has previously been, it doesn't mean that there's equitable access," one voting rights attorney told Insider.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
On October 20, Diné activist and Navajo Nation citizen Allie Young saddled up on horseback with a group from her community for a 10-mile trail ride, a journey that took two hours, to vote in Kayenta, Arizona.
Young, co-founder of Protect the Sacred, lives in Navajo County, which spans nearly 9,960 square miles of land in Eastern Arizona, and includes communities particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Before we did something as significant as casting our ballots, I wanted us to ride those two hours upon our homelands to really reflect on what we're fighting for," she said. "And then along the way, having conversations with some of the riders, I know that this election, many Native voters went out to vote because of what we experienced these past few months in the pandemic."
After an election cycle spent directly organizing her community, registering her neighbors to vote, and getting them to the polls, voting herself required more advance planning and time than it did for most Americans.
Navajo County maintained 12 early voting sites, most of which operated for limited dates and times. Only one was open throughout the entire early voting period for a full 9-hour business day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The nearest early voting location that Young traveled to, in the Kayenta Township parking lot, closed on October 20, 10 days before early voting ended, and was only open five hours a day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"Shutting down that early voting site a full 10 days before the early voting period ended was very frustrating because Kayenta is one of the bigger towns in Navajo Nation and in that Northern area," Young said.
One obstacle to having voting sites directly on reservations is a lack of infrastructure that allows county election officials to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In states like Arizona, counties have expanded the use of curbside and drive-through voting to work around those challenges.
"If you have a chapter house and the parking lot is not paved, that doesn't meet ADA requirements…and so at those sites where it's a problem, curbside voting helps to address that," Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told Insider.
While any voter can vote by mail without an excuse in Arizona, voting by mail isn't a feasible option for many residents of rural Native communities. An estimated 33% of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in hard-to-count census tracts, which the Census Bureau defines as areas with census mail return rates of less than 73%.
Many reservation residents and rural areas don't have traditional street addresses and do not receive consistent US mail delivery directly to their homes, and opt to get their mail at Post Office boxes instead.
Young said that in her community, residents rely on receiving their mail to PO boxes in the next closest town, which is also about a 10-mile trip each way. The length of the journey means that some residents only make time to go to pick up their mail once or twice a week.
Navajo County expanded its use of ballot drop boxes in 2020, Hobbs told Insider, but Young said that option wasn't aren't accessible everywhere.
"In Navajo Nation, we have 110 communities each governed by chapter houses and chapter presidents," she explained. "We have 110 chapter houses across the nation, and I don't understand why valid drop boxes can't be at each of those chapter houses…that would certainly help in those very rural areas."
The Najavo County Recorder's office did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
A 'remarkably consistent' pattern of hurdles
Despite fears that the pandemic would lead to widespread administrative chaos, the 2020 election was remarkably smooth, secure, and fair, with record voter turnout– including in Native American communities across the country like Young's, which is credited with helping deliver President-elect Joe Biden's victory in Arizona.
—J. Miles Coleman (@JMilesColeman) December 5, 2020
But overcoming obstacles to cast a ballot in the first place is not an uncommon experience for many of the estimated 6.8 million Native American individuals residing in the United States and members of the 574 federally-recognized Native tribes, according to activists and experts interviewed by Insider.
An extensive report conducted by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, a project of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), based on two years of research in Native communities across the country and released in June, found that Native voters still face inequitable access to registering to vote, casting a vote, and having their vote count.
"What we saw over the course of those two years was a remarkably consistent picture," Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney at NARF and one of the authors of the "Obstacles at Every Turn" report, told Insider. "It was surprising in a lot of ways, how consistent the discrimination and barriers are across the country."
Despite the Native American and Alaska Native populations growing as a share of the population, Native Americans are still registered to vote at lower rates than voting-age eligible non-Natives.
Well into the mid-20th century, states continued to refuse to acknowledge Native Americans as citizens of their states and deployed blatantly discriminatory tools including poll taxes, literacy tests, banning residents of reservations or tribal members from voting, and in some cases, claiming that Native Americans were wards of the state and thus didn't have a right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed many discriminatory barriers and mandated states provide more protections and resources for vote-suppressed minority groups, including Native Americans.
But still, a combination of outright discrimination, systemic underinvestment in election administration, especially in lower-income and rural areas, and a lack of consideration for and representation of Native communities persist today.
Basic aspects of the voting process, like being within walking or driving distance of a polling place, receiving reliable mail delivery to a traditional mailing address, or even being able to register to vote or request a ballot online easily, are out of reach for many living in Native American reservations and communities.
"About 70% of our population lives on reservations or in rural areas adjacent to reservation land. And we often take for granted, if we're in cities, that a polling location is within a mile or two of where you live. Whereas with some reservations, the nearest place to go cast your ballot might be 60 to 80 miles away, one way," Crystal Echo Hawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma and executive director of nonprofit IllumiNative, told Insider.
The pandemic exacerbated physical and digital divides to voting
In states like Nevada and Montana, which opted to send nearly every registered voter a mail ballot, De León and her team moved quickly with litigation to ensure that Native tribes – which face greater challenges with voting by mail – were also able to vote in-person.
"It was kind of remarkable to see so many county clerks independently come to the conclusion that they couldn't provide [in-person voting] services in Indian Country, but they could provide services at their county seats," she said.
NARF won two cases in Montana, one lawsuit that struck down a law that prohibited third-party ballot collection and another on behalf of the Blackfeet Nation requiring Pondera County to open an in-person voting location on the Blackfeet Reservation.
"It's reflective of the fact that the people that are running the elections don't consider the tribal communities like they consider themselves," De León said of the hurdles to voting in Montana.
"None of the reservations got Election Day access. In all of them, we had to compromise and get access only in the weeks before…to satellite voting offices," she continued, adding that tribes in Montana also had limited access to ballot drop boxes because of a state law requiring them to be staffed by two workers at all times.
"For state and local officials, it's realizing that Native Americans are everywhere, we're not some small invisible, population," Echo Hawk said. "Here in Oklahoma, we're about 11% of the population. Our community needs to have a seat at the table."
Alaska Natives are estimated to make up nearly 16% of the population in the state, but members of Alaska Native communities also faced challenges casting a ballot partly due to the sheer size of the state and the remote locations of some villages.
"We continue to have issues around language assistance, with access to early voting..and problems recruiting poll workers. None of this is new; it isn't because of the pandemic, these are things that happen every single year," Kendra Kloster, a voting rights advocate and the executive director of Native People's Action, told Insider.
In Alaska's August primary, Kloster said, one Native community didn't get ballots at all because the Division of Elections didn't know there were voters living there.
In November, COVID-19 cases increased throughout the state, and many villages went into lockdown mode.
A lack of communication from election authorities, Kloster and NPA said, left voters confused as to whether they could vote in-person without violating the lockdown restrictions or risking arrest. On top of that, election workers in many Native villages weren't receiving necessary personal-protective equipment for working the polls, and some voters reporting not receiving mail ballots they requested.
"Another individual – and this isn't the first time I've heard this – said their polling location was across the river and the river wasn't frozen enough to go over and vote. That's not something new, but that's a problem," Kloster told Insider.
Geographic and digital barriers make it difficult for voters to register online and for election officials to conduct basic voter outreach and education, leaving much of that work to Native activists and organizers like Kloster.
"There are many communities that don't have good Internet access even in parts of urban Alaska," Kloster said. "Out in rural Alaska, the voter guides on the Internet could take hours to download."
The NAVRC report found that about 90% of reservation lands lack broadband Internet penetration, entrenching a digital divide, as well as a physical one, between Native communities and trusted sources of election information.
"Some of the other things I heard when having conversations with people around voting has been lack of information, over the years, getting lots of different comments of, 'Well, we weren't sure who was on the ballot,' or they didn't receive voter guides," Kloster said.
The Alaska Division of Elections did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
'There's a target.'
While Native American voters have played a critical role in electing many top Democrats, like Biden and Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona, Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, and former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota in 2012, Native Americans and Alaska Native voters are not a monolithic voting group.
In 2020, Alaska Natives played an important role in reelecting Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young in Alaska. And majority-Native precincts in places like Robeson County, North Carolina swung to President Donald Trump after the president backed legislation that would grant federal recognition to the region's Lumbee Tribe.
—J. Miles Coleman (@JMilesColeman) November 5, 2020
Native Americans exerting political power has often been followed by efforts to suppress their voting rights. In 2013, the year after Native voters helped deliver Heitkamp's victory in North Dakota, the state enacted a stricter voter ID requiring voters' identification to have a residential address, which most immediately affected Native voters on reservations.
In the spring of 2020, the Spirit Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, represented by NARF and the Campaign Legal Center, entered into a consent decree with the state to ease some of the burdens posed by the law.
De León said that looking forward, the team at NARF will be on guard for efforts by states to restrict voting in ways that disproportionately affect Native voters.
"Though the Native turnout was 'successful,' and it was in a lot of ways successful and higher than it has previously been, it doesn't mean that there's equitable access, it doesn't mean that every voter is voting, and it certainly doesn't mean that every vote that was cast was cast reasonably easy," she said.