Updated Jan 30, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Native Americans feel overlooked in voting rights push

Elsie Werito, 84, a member of the To'hajiilee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, waits in line to cast her ballot at the Desiderio Center November 2, 2004 in To'hajiilee, New Mexico.
Elsie Werito, 84, a member of the To'hajiilee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, waits to cast her ballot in To'hajiilee, New Mexico. Photo: Rick Scibelli/Getty Images

Native American voters face heightened discrimination at the ballot box like Black Americans and Latino voters, but they're often left out of the conversation about election reform despite their ability to swing crucial races.

Why it matters: Voting rights is quickly becoming a litmus test for Democratic candidates to succeed nationwide, and a top priority for the Biden administration. Some Democrats are looking to carve out specific legislation helping to preserve Indigenous voters' access.

  • The targeted approach comes as efforts to pass comprehensive election reform founder in Congress.

Driving the news: Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) has been working on a bill that would ensure Native Americans, Alaska Natives and voters living on tribal lands can easily register and cast their vote.

Details: If enacted, NAVRA would allow Tribes to specify the number and locations of requested voter registration sites, drop boxes and polling locations on Tribal lands, and authorize Tribal ID cards for voting purposes.

  • It also would also help establish state-level Native American voting task forces by authorizing $10 million to the Native American Voting Rights Task Force grant program.

What they're saying: "We know the disenfranchisement of Black and Brown voters at the ballot box is more widely known — it's being talked about, it's being debated across America," Lujan told Axios in an interview.

  • "What had not been taking place was including Native Americans, and the challenges that we see across the country that Native American voters are facing every day."

By the numbers: Over 1 million Native American and Alaska Native voters are not registered to vote.

  • 34% of Native Americans are not registered — as compared to 26.5% of white Americans, according to data from the National Congress of American Indians.
  • The voter participation rate of American Indians and Alaska Natives is among the lowest of any ethnic group in the country, according to available data.
  • The turnout rate among Native American voters is up to 10 percentage points lower than the rate of other racial and ethnic groups.

Don't forget: Native Americans have been credited with helping Democrats win close races in recent years.

  • Joe Biden won Arizona in 2020 by 0.3%, after Navajo voters went to the polls in record numbers.
  • Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have credited Native American voters with helping them win in their tight re-election efforts.

The backdrop: A number of states with GOP-controlled legislatures have recently passed bills that critics argue impose new restrictions on Indigenous voters.

Some GOP proposals seek to impose new address requirements despite many Native Americans lacking addresses.

  • Only about 18% of Native American voters in Arizona, outside of the state's two largest counties, have traditional addresses, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State, told Axios.
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