During its election night coverage, CNN listed “something else” as a category referring to voters who are not Black, white, Asian, or Latinx. Indigenous communities across the country saw this as erasure of the Native vote and reacted with criticism (and many memes). But as it turns out, “something else” turned the tide of this historic election.
Last week, AP News called the presidential race in favor of Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden over the current president Donald J. Trump, a Republican. Biden’s win is partially the result of Native voters turning out in force on Election Day and flipping a few key swing states. In particular, Native votes accounted for Biden’s narrow victory in Arizona and Wisconsin and helped cement leads in Minnesota and Michigan.
Thanks to your support, our Lakota People’s Law Project team was able to play a critical role in this election. To help get out the Native vote, we formed an alliance with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to mobilize Native voters across the country from a call center on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. In total, our Lakota Law-Standing Rock Voter Alliance trained over 40 tribal phone bankers, called over a quarter million phone numbers, and had 11,000 conversations with voters across the United States.
This election’s outcome is a reminder of the resounding resilience of Native communities. Historically, the Native vote has been a key determinant in Senate and House races, but it has long had untapped potential in deciding the president in a race of this magnitude. Despite the many significant barriers Native voters face, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on Indigenous families, Indian Country really showed up for our democracy in this race. The result has changed the trajectory of our nation’s future.
“Due partly to the Native vote,” said Phyllis Young, Lakota People’s Law Project Standing Rock organizer. “We’ll have new national leadership, more Indigenous people in office, and the chance to heal this nation.”
Arizona, a famously deep red stronghold, chose a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1996, only the second time in 70 years. This historic feat was cinched by Diné voters’ astounding 97 percent turnout for Biden. According to the Navajo Times, voters across the three counties that overlap with the Navajo Nation cast close to 74,000 Democratic ballots and a mere 2,010 for Trump.
Indigenous voters helped turn out the narrow projected win for Biden in Wisconsin, another swing state. Menominee County, which shares the same border as the Menominee Reservation, is nearly 90 percent tribal members and voted 82 percent in favor of Biden. Brandon Yellowbird Stevens, vice chairman for Oneida Nation and election analyst, told the Green Bay Press Gazette that Native voter turnout was higher than the last general election.
Native American communities had significant impacts even in deep red states where Biden lost. Oglala Lakota County South Dakota, one of the three counties of the Pine Ridge Reservation, voted an overwhelming 88 percent in favor of Biden compared to the state’s 61 percent win for Trump. For Montana counties where the reservations of the Blackfeet Nation, the Crow Tribe, Fort Belknap Tribes, the Northern Cheyenne Tribes overlap, voters swung blue in distinct contrast to neighboring Trump majorities.
The rising tide of Native voters in 2020 is particularly remarkable given the presence of the many longstanding and complex hurdles Indigenous voters face: long drive times, sparse polling locations, tribal ID laws, the US government’s centuries-long history of voter suppression, and now, the threat of COVID-19. Historically, these factors have created a perfect storm for low voter propensity in Indigenous counties, especially compared to high-propensity white communities.
“If you took away their roads, gave them poverty, no transportation, and added in distance, the white vote would plummet,” O.J. Semans, co-executive director of Four Directions, told the Center for Public Integrity.
Many Native families on rural reservations have to drive long distances to polling locations. Some don’t have traditional addresses and thus have to obtain a new tribal ID to vote. And all these preexisting difficulties are compounded by the current pandemic, which has yielded a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities.
Tribal members living on the Navajo Nation have experienced higher COVID-19 cases per capita than any other US state, and have a death toll of almost 600 people. And in many Republican states, tribal communities have suffered from inadequate state government response — on top of an already negligent response from the federal government. Despite the pandemic and the existing barriers to vote, some regions occupied by the Navajo and Hopi Tribes experienced 116 percent more voter turnout compared to 2016.
This year’s record-shattering Native turnout was made possible by the numerous organizations across the country who stepped up to ensure Indian Country had its fair shot at casting ballots. Those organizations include, but are not limited to, the Lakota People’s Law Project, North Dakota Native Vote, Sacred Pipe Resource Center, Native Organizers Alliance, Inter-Tribal Council, Diné C.A.R.E., Rural Utah Project, VoteAmerica, Four Directions, All Voting is Local, and the many tribal governments across the country that made voting a priority in this already tumultuous year.
Our team, the Lakota Law-Standing Rock Voter Alliance, organized to get out the Native vote both at Standing Rock and in critical battleground states. We called every working phone number on the Standing Rock reservation. In Arizona, we dialed more than 85,000 phone numbers and spoke with over 2,400 voters, with special attention paid to Navajo and Apache counties. We dialed 90,000+ phone numbers in North Carolina and spoke with almost 4,700 voters, focusing on Cumberland, Hoke, Scotland, and Robeson counties, which encompass the territory of the Lumbee tribe (hopefully soon-to-be federally recognized). Our phone banking team also reached out to voters in Florida to speak about the the state’s increasing vulnerability to climate change.
On top of the Native impact on the national race, voters made further history this year by electing a record six Native American representatives to the House. A scattering of Indigenous leaders also won in local races across the country.
Biden’s win in Indian Country follows his unveiling of the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations early last month, which lays out a comprehensive 15-page plan on tribal sovereignty and issues impacting Indian Country. Trump’s three-page plan, Putting America’s First Peoples First: Forgotten No More!, provided some ideas for empowering Native nations but has been met with criticism over its vagueness. You can see a comparison of the two plans in our most recent blog.
Native America is not a monolith. Most Native people live in more urban settings, and there are differing perspectives across Indian Country that exist all along the political spectrum. What this event in American history proves, though, is that Native voters will not be dismissed anymore.
This long-awaited presidential race is coming to a close, but it is not officially over. Georgia is holding Senate race run-offs, and as anticipated, President Trump is refusing to concede the race to Biden. The Lakota People’s Law Project is eager to take our successful Native-to-Native phone banking model and deploy it in the next race. Whether that’s in Georgia a few weeks from now or the next general election, we’ll see. Stay tuned to our social media and our emails to remain abreast of what you can do to protect our democracy and ensure tribal sovereignty.
As the sun sets on the Trump Administration, one thing is clear: Indian Country has power. Power in the electorate. Power in the halls of government. And power to lead this country into our shared future. That power will likely never be taken for granted again.