ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A tribal newspaper in Arizona is publishing a detailed voter guide for the first time ever. A New Mexico pueblo is sending kindergartners home with get-out-the-vote buttons for their parents. Tribes in Wisconsin are reaching out to young adults with a Rock the Vote event.
Native American communities nationwide are working hard to tap about 3 million Native American voters, hoping to turn around low voter participation that has persisted in Indian Country for decades. The push is being headed by the National Congress of American Indians, the largest group representing Native Americans, which calls low turnout a “civic emergency” — fueled by everything from language barriers and vast distances between polling places to high unemployment and poverty.
“As we look at why our vote is so important, our political activism really is aimed at making sure that we can address critical concerns in our communities,” said NCAI executive director Jacqueline Johnson Pata.
The NCAI and its partners are focusing on 18 states with high Indian populations, and their efforts are not without challenge. The NCAI said in a recent report that voter ID laws could negatively affect participation this year in Native American and Alaska Native communities in 10 states — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Washington.
For example, in Alaska and Florida, tribal ID cards are not listed as acceptable forms of identification at the polls. In other states, address requirements pose difficulty for those tribal communities that lack street addresses. In Montana, Indians from the remote Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations sought an emergency order for satellite voting on reservations, arguing that the long distance they must travel to vote early, or register late, puts them at a disadvantage compared with white voters. A federal judge denied their request on Tuesday.
The NCAI is pushing this year for the “largest Native vote in history,” but experts agree achieving a high turnout will be difficult.
“They require more engagement, more interaction, just to get them to the polls,” Montana State University political scientist David Parker. Get-out-the-vote campaigns on reservations are particularly time-consuming, he said, because some homes may have no Internet service — or even television. There also are cultural barriers and the tribes’ tumultuous history with the federal government.
Still, tribal leaders hope this momentum will energize their people on Election Day. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are locked in a tight battle for the White House, and in some states, a few votes could give either candidate the margin of victory.
“I think the stakes are high,” said Laurie Weahkee, executive director of the Native American Voters Alliance, which has been canvassing pueblos, or tribal communities, in the Albuquerque area and talking to prospective voters on the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
“I think people are really paying attention,” Weahkee said. “They’re asking: ‘What do these elections mean to us? What does this mean for me as a working person? What does this mean for my family?’”
Despite the fact that they lack the sheer numbers of other constituencies, such as Latinos and blacks, Pata said, Native Americans can use voting as a tool to protect sovereignty and advance tribal self-determination.
The issues that resonate most with Indian voters are economic development and improved government-to-government recognition of tribal sovereignty, said Holly Cook Macarro, a Democratic political consultant in Washington and member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa in northern Minnesota. Turning out votes in bad economic times is always a struggle, Macarro said, since unemployment is in the double digits on many reservations and 60 percent or higher on some.
Native Americans are about 1 percent of the electorate, and in 2008 Obama garnered 69 percent support among Native voters over Republican John McCain, according to estimates by The Associated Press. The margin of error is plus or minus 11 percentage points because of the small number of voters.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have made critical strides under the Obama administration. Work has been done to bolster crime fighting and chip away at high sexual assault rates on reservations, to improve access to health care that the U.S. government promised American Indians’ ancestors in treaties and to break bureaucratic logjams that stunt economic development on tribal trust lands.
Some tribes have formed their own political action committees and lobby for issues such as building casino enterprises. They seek to make headway on issues such as Internet gaming, clean energy production and expansion of broadband to remote reservations.
In New Mexico, Arizona and more than a dozen other states, tribal members have helped national groups with voter registration drives and phone banks with the goal of besting the Native American turnout in 2008, when fewer than half of eligible Native voters showed up at the polls. That equates to more than 1 million unrealized votes, according to the NCAI.