Patricia Whitefoot lives in the heart of the windswept Yakima Nation in central Washington state. To collect her mail-in voter ballot, the 70-something grandmother recently drove 25 miles each way on pitted roads. But nothing would stop her.
“As the first peoples of this country, we’re inherently invested in taking care of this land,” says Whitefoot, who, when not babysitting her 5-year-old grandson, stays busy dispensing voting information to other Native American voters by phone and computer.
“It’s harder now because of the pandemic," Whitefoot says. "But we’re helping each other to get the vote out.”
COVID-19 has disproportionately sickened or killed Native Americans across the U.S., creating another Election Day challenge for a poor and geographically isolated population already fighting to overcome steep voting barriers ranging from discriminatory election laws to distant polling stations.
Though this election has seen many Americans turn to voting by mail to avoid COVID-19 exposure, some Indigenous Americans risk having their votes ignored given the limited and inefficient nature of postal service on many rural reservations. Spotty internet access also makes it challenging to access information on how to vote in a pandemic.
Tribes struggle to get out the vote as it is. Only 1.8 million Native Americans voted in 2016, about half the eligible voters among the nation's 5.2 million Indigenous peoples scattered across nearly 600 tribes, 30% of whom live on reservations.
Despite a perennially low voter turnout, which Native American voting rights activists are working hard to boost, those who do come out on Election Day could prove critical as President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden vie for votes in tightly contested states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona.
In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin’s 10 Electoral College votes after beating Hillary Clinton by just 22,177 votes.
“Right now, we have 80,000 registered voters in Wisconsin, and we will make a difference there and in other states where the margins were tight,” says Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians.
As Nov. 3 nears, activists are focusing in particular on the 40% of Native Americans younger than 25. They emphasize pressing environmental and federal funding issues and stress the need to have a say in who takes the White House given that federal, not state, law holds great sway over those living on reservations.
“People like to say Indians are statistically insignificant since there are only a few million of us,” says Judith Le Blanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance activist group and a member of Oklahoma’s Caddo tribe, whose group helped launch a Native American get-out-the-vote resource website called Natives Vote. “But we are politically significant.”
Despite many hurdles, Native American power is growing. In 2018, Congress welcomed the first two Native American women to its ranks, Reps. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., of the Laguna Pueblo and Sharice Davids, D-Kan., of the Ho-Chunk Nation. That same year, Washington state Democrat Debra Lekanoff of the Coast Salish Peoples was the first Native American woman to be elected to the state assembly.
"We have a lot of advocates helping to register people, from military veterans making calls to nieces and nephews sitting at the kitchen with an auntie with the ballot who can barely read," Lekanoff says. "Our goal is to broaden the tables that we sit at through the vote. Meanwhile, it's up to officials like myself to remove barriers that might come up."
A history of Native American voter suppression
The fraught history of Native Americans is filled with horrific bloodshed and broken promises. After moving most tribes onto reservations, U.S. officials granted Native Americans citizenship in 1924. But it took another half-century before all states recognized their right to vote.
That delay has had a lasting impact. Of an estimated 3.6 million voting-age Native Americans, a third remain unregistered. Activists point to ongoing voter suppression efforts, many of which have faced court challenges, as a reason many Native Americans have yet to exercise their constitutional right.
In Alaska, where 120,000 Indigenous Americans live scattered across a state nearly three times the size of Texas, the state's Supreme Court upheld on Oct. 12 a lower court decision eliminating the need for a witness signature on absentee ballots, a rule that saw many ballots rejected in recent elections.
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The court noted that the signature requirement particularly burdens the voting process during a pandemic, especially when residents of such a vast geographic area must lean on absentee voting. Native American legal activists say the signature requirement was inherently racist and could be traced back to an 1831 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that described a parental relationship between the government and native peoples.
“It’s a relic from a time when Native Americans were seen as wards of the state,” says Natalie Landreth, staff attorney with the Anchorage-based Native American Rights Fund.
In Montana last month, Landreth's organization, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, succeeded in getting the Yellowstone County District Court to strike down a state law that hampered Native American voting. The Ballot Interference Prevention Act, which passed by a wide margin in 2018, restricted who could collect how many voter ballots and levied fines for anyone delivering ballots of friends and relatives to the post office.
The law was seen as discriminatory by activists, given that car ownership is not a given for many Native Americans and post offices can be hours away on rutted roads.
And in February, Native American activists favorably settled a lawsuit brought against North Dakota, which years ago had ruled that an ID with a residential street address was required to register to vote. Many Native Americans live in remote areas where only P.O. box numbers are issued.
Not all such legal challenges have been met with success. On Oct. 16, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to grant members of the Navajo Nation their request to have votes coming from the Arizona part of the nation counted up to 10 days after the election.
The court argued that granting that request would burden election officials who would not necessarily know if a ballot was from a Navajo voter and risked granting the extension to others by accident. Activists who filed the legal challenge argued that poor postal service on the reservation – which sprawls across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – risked delays that would invalidate Navajo votes.
Four Directions, a voting rights group that backed the lawsuit, recently tested mail services on the Navajo Nation and found first-class mail took 18 hours to arrive at a county recorder’s office from urban Scottsdale, Arizona, compared with six days for letters traveling from Navajo country.
“If middle-class white people had to go through the barriers Navajos do, white voter turnout would plummet,” says O.J. Semans, co-executive director of Four Directions, headquartered at the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in Mission, South Dakota. “The pandemic scares me. The closing of polling stations scares me. But Native Americans are ready to cast their ballots.”
COVID-19 another of many Native American voting hurdles
Traditional election year challenges have been further agitated this year by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for Native Americans.
Fear of the virus is high given that longtime health and economic inequities mean Native Americans are 5.3 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white Americans, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That means people are more inclined to stay locked indoors and are no longer reachable by the door-to-door, get-out-the-vote campaigns common to reservations, where the digital divide looms large. Only half of Native Americans report having high-speed internet access compared with 82% of the U.S. population at large, according to the U.S. Census. That connectivity factor looms large when you're trying to register to vote online or when voting rights groups have switched from in-person visits to social media blasts.
In some states, the pandemic may already have depressed Native American voter turnout. In New Mexico, home to Navajos as well as members of 19 Pueblo Indian tribes, there was a 1% decline in Native American absentee ballots in this spring's presidential primary, a recent Common Cause report noted. Overall turnout statewide, however, saw an 8% jump in participation via absentee ballots.
Another obstacle to Native American voting is anchored to geography. Vast Native American reservations means stations and ballot drop boxes often are far away.
In Fort Peck, Montana, Native Americans often must travel up to 35 miles each way to their closest post office, which typically operates on a limited schedule, according to the Native American Rights Fund. In Arizona, Navajos have just one polling location per 306 square miles compared with one per 13 square miles for Scottsdale residents, according to the Four Directions advocacy group.
Efforts to add polling locations have been hard-fought. In Nevada, it took a 2016 lawsuit against the state by the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes to bring early-voting locations to the area reservations.
"Fighting for voting rights has been part of our mandate since we were founded in 1944," says Allis of the National Congress of American Indians. "Beyond outright suppression tactics through laws, we face natural barriers like bad roads. Not only are you likely facing a long wait if you make it to a polling location in Indian country, it's likely a dangerous drive just to get there."
That transportation disincentive aside, Allis says a variety of groups have stepped up voter registration efforts in the run-up to the election.
"It's all about educating people about the importance of having your voice heard," Allis says.
Activists push to register Native Americans
Online initiatives such as Natives Vote 2020 and Every Native Vote Counts are but a few ways activists hope to register more Native Americans in the final days of the 2020 campaign. They remain optimistic that between successful court victories and an energized electorate, voter turnout could reach an all-time high among Indigenous Americans.
"There's been so much engagement work in the community, and people are using everything from phone trees to social media to Zoom conversations to connect with voters," says Elizabeth Day, community engagement project manager for the Native American Community Development Institute, whose efforts have been focused on those living in the Native American Cultural Corridor in Minneapolis.
Those tactics include everything from voter registration drive-through events, where the lure includes homemade fried-bread tacos, to employing artists to inspire through their works.
Over the past months, Jeremy Fields, an artist of Pawnee, Apsaalooké and Chickasaw ancestry, has with the help of his artist wife, Collins Provost-Fields, painted 14 murals in Native American community centers across Minnesota and the Dakotas.
To emphasize the importance of voting to the next generation of Native American voters, some murals feature children running while holding pieces of paper with the word “vote."
"It's all about making sure our families and homes are adequately represented,” Fields says.
Wisconsin Oneida Nation tribal member Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens says he will work throughout October to register new voters. He spends hours each day making calls and sending texts about drop boxes in and around nearby Green Bay.
Yellowbird-Stevens says the tribe is “usually nonpartisan” and prefers to work with politicians on both sides of the aisle. But, he says, this is "a pivotal election," noting that the Trump administration disappointed some Native Americans last year when it proposed a 14% cut in funding to the Department of the Interior, which oversees both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Although hardly a monolithic voting bloc, Native Americans largely skew liberal, with 51% registered as Democrats, 26% Independent, 9% Democratic Socialists and 7% Republican, says Crystal Echo Hawk, founder of IllumiNative, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, nonprofit that focuses on challenging negative stereotypes.
“Our message to our voters is ‘mask up or mail in,’” says Echo Hawk, who is from the Pawnee Nation.
Echo Hawk says many Native Americans are eager to cast their ballot this year in part because the pandemic's powerful effect on tribes has put a spotlight on the failure of the federal government to keep Indigenous peoples healthy. Treaties dating back to the 19th century between tribes and the U.S. government often traded land for services such as education and health care.
"The federal government has a responsibility of trust and responsibility to tribes around health care," she says. "We had to cede our land in exchange for that and education, and frankly this administration has not lived up to that commitment. And in terms of COVID-19, their response has been nothing short of scandalous."
In New Mexico, Amber Carillo is helping members of the state's various tribes get information on the best way to register ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline. A member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe with relatives in the Acoma Pueblo, Carillo is particularly distressed whenever she gets word of another elder who has died from complications of COVID-19.
“These are people that carry our cultural wisdom and language,” says Carillo, a Native American voting rights organizer with the activist group Common Cause New Mexico. “For us, when they die, it’s like the Library of Congress burning down.”
Yakima Nation elder Whitefoot is one such repository of tribal wisdom and lore. She is also a dedicated soldier in the campaign to get out the Native American vote.
Although she remains largely at home because of the pandemic, the former Washington state director for Indian education remains ever the educator, using social media and phone calls to reach out to those on reservations across the West and disseminate information.
“One elder – she’s 85 and a great-grandmother – asked me where to get mail-in ballots, so I’ll help with things like that all time,” she says. “We have an obligation to vote. My grandson recently asked me, ‘What is a president?’ And I said it is someone who represents us. So, we need to have a say in who that is.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: For Native American voters, COVID-19 adds to existing hurdles in 2020