This article is part of Prism’s series on Tribal Nations, Voting Rights, & Political Power. Read the rest of the series here.
Native American communities in Arizona are facing significant challenges this election season as voter suppression efforts ramp up and COVID-19 cases spike around the state. But although those issues might make winning the state an uphill battle, Democrats shouldn’t ignore Arizona in 2020, and recognizing the political power of Native communities must be a key part of any strategy. Recent history and polling show why it’s such a promising state.
Native voters in Arizona haven’t always been able to exercise their political power. In 1948, Native Americans living in Arizona were granted the right to vote, however for the next two decades, did not actively participate in state elections because of English literacy tests that required would-be voters to read the Constitution and write their names before being allowed to register. With illiteracy rates estimated at 80% to 90% in the Native community at that time, the tests barred tens of thousands from voting until federal law outlawed such obstacles in the 1970s.
Despite this history, today Native and other organizers are taking ownership of the fight for political participation and voting in Arizona and staying committed to the work despite the pandemic. Grassroots groups from around the state formed the amazing One Arizona coalition, which focuses on outreach to Latinx and Native voters during this election cycle. This coalition was formed after SB 1070 was introduced in the Arizona state legislature with the goal of harshly targeting migrant communities. In 2010, the four founding members of the coalition set a goal of registering 12,000 new Latinx voters that year, and since then, more than 100,000 Latinx voters have been added to the voter rolls because of targeted voter registration drives in every election and a long-term commitment to increasing civic participation within these communities. Recently, they have built a Native vote coalition including the Intertribal Council of Arizona and the Arizona Native Vote Election Protection project at ASU School of Law. Before the impact of COVID-19 forced them to scale back their outreach, they set a goal of registering 250,000 new voters for the 2020 elections.
They had planned a targeted focus on sending Native field organizers to the 21 Native communities located around Arizona and urban areas. Based on the group’s estimates after the 2018 elections, there is a universe of 211,175 Native Americans who are voting eligible but not registered. They have been able to identify 120,370—or 57%—as registered voters, leaving 90,805 or 43% as unregistered voters for the 2020 election. One Arizona set a goal of reaching them in 2020, and by the voter registration deadline earlier this month, One Arizona had registered 180,000 voters statewide, including many in Native American communities. It’s powerful to witness field efforts building upon the success of the 2018 efforts and community groups leading these conversations outside of a traditional party structure because the coalition members realize, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, that “a rising tide lifts all boats” given the changing demographics in the state.
Those changing demographics have begun to swing the state left. In fact, in 2018, then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Kate Hobbs was elected as the secretary of state, becoming the first Democrat since 1995. The latter has been extremely significant to Native vote outreach efforts in this election because of the emphasis on getting voters placed on the Permanent Early Voter List to vote by mail after the COVID-19 outbreak changed the in-person nature of elections. Considering the 2018 U.S. Senate race was decided by 55,900 votes, finding new and unregistered voters plus election protection have been key objectives for the One Arizona coalition.
The One Arizona coalition is also refocusing its efforts on digital engagement through census 2020 outreach to Native communities in Arizona, especially since census counting has been extended in the wake of the pandemic. It has been particularly challenging for the Navajo Nation, which has been dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak in the northern Arizona area. As of Oct. 20, there have been 10,999 cases with 7,397 recoveries and 574 deaths.
Earlier this year I attended a coalition meeting of One Arizona, and they raised other issues familiar to me and many others who do electoral organizing within Native communities. One example is the use of the NGPVAN voter system, which has had issues with labeling voters by race from Native American communities. It’s a common occurrence across states that use the NGPVAN, including my home state of South Dakota. For example, my last name, “Killer,” is a known one that can likely be recognized as Native American, but a Native American person with an Anglican last name such as Smith or Johnson would be entered into the NGPVAN as white or Caucasian, making it harder to do voter outreach to a Native community. Another problem organizers face when going door-to-door in Arizona in rural reservation areas is dealing with stray or aggressive dogs. That’s another issue I have personal experience with, since in 2004, I was bitten by a dog while canvassing on the Rosebud reservation. The One Arizona coalition is working to address all of these challenges. But they aren’t the only group doing important work right now.
As early voting is under way in Arizona, Native voters in particular are thinking about how safe it will be to cast their ballots in person after COVID-19 has impacted so many areas, and wondering if their vote will count if it’s postmarked before Election Day. Four Directions, a 501(c)(4) Native-led group, is helping fight to ensure this will happen. They have successfully fought for increased ballot access in Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Nevada, and have since turned their attention to Arizona. I had the opportunity to visit with O.J. Siemans, the founder and current director, who felt despite the pandemic, Natives residing on the various Arizona reservations in which they are working with are frustrated with the attacks on sacred sites and are energized to vote. He spoke from experience after helping in the various Senate races in which the Native vote was pivotal in helping win races.
Given all of the work that groups like One Arizona and Four Directions have done to adapt in the wake of COVID-19 and fight to make sure Native voters are heard, this election may be the one where the promise of Native political power in Arizona begins to be fulfilled.