From Arizona to Montana, Native Voters Struggle for Democracy

Natives have proven crucial to Democrats' success across the West, but their struggle for democracy remains one of the least acknowledged, ugly realities of every election.

By Aura Bogado Jan 28, 2013

Leonard Gorman is a man of maps. He heads the Navajo Nation’s Human Rights Commission, which among other responsibilities, is charged with protecting and promoting Navajo voters’ rights to choose candidates who will reasonably represent their interests. He and his team all work out of their trailer office in Window Rick, Ariz.–the Navajo Nation’s capitol–where they chart data they’ve collected on potential impacts of redistricting on the Navajo Nation.

The first map Gorman’s team submitted to the Arizona Redistricting Commission resembled the letter J, encompassing the edge of Arizona’s eastern border and curving up towards the west. Although that map included large portions of Arizona’s Native population, the Navajo Nation later opted out of it because Arizona’s hardline anti-immigrants liked it too much. It included large southern border areas, where white conservative ranchers are more likely to vote Republican and would have infringed on Arizona’s growing Latino districts. "We immediately learned that the J map was playing into the extreme right position," explains Gorman.

So the Human Rights Commission went back to the drawing board and submitted what Gorman calls the "non-J map," which the Commission eventually adopted for Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. It was that map that helped Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat running for the House, win back her seat in November.

Kirkpatrick first held the seat it in 2009, but lost it in 2011 to Republican Paul Gossar–a tea party darling whose endorsements included Sarah Palin. Determined to make it back to the House, Kirkpatrick spent a lot of time after her defeat on the Navajo Nation. Arizona’s independent voters make up a third of the state’s electorate. But instead of investing crucial time with those independent white voters, Kirkpatrick spent the day before the election on the White Mount Apache reservation. On Election Day, she somehow managed to visit Tuba City, Window Rock, Chinle and Kayanta–which are all population centers, but hours away from each other on the vast Navajo Nation.

As election results first poured in, it seemed as if Kirkpatrick was doomed to lose once more. Yet at about 1:30 in the morning, when counties with high numbers of Native voters started coming in, that all changed. In Apache County alone, which includes a large portion of the Navajo Nation, Kirkpatrick garnered nearly 70 percent of the vote. "The election isn’t over until the last precinct comes in from the reservation," proclaims Ron Lee, Kirkpatrick’s district director, who headed the tribal outreach effort during the campaign.

Lee’s not just boasting. Kirkpatrick’s victory is a reflection of how crucial Native voters are to Democrats’ success here and in several Western states. Four of the tightest Senate races took place in states with some of the largest percentages of Native Americans: Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota and Montana. The Native vote in three of those states helped Democrats win key victories and maintain control of the Senate.

Yet the 2012 election in these states also revealed just how hard Native communities still must work to participate in democracy–and just how little they are getting in return for their organizing efforts. Natives around the country still face incredible barriers when trying to vote. Despite the Fourteenth Amendment, it wasn’t until the 1924 Snyder Act that all Natives were granted U.S. citizenship, which included the right to vote. It took some states up to 50 years to recognize that right and the ongoing struggle to cast ballots today often remains entrenched in the long history of disenfranchisement.

Don’t Vote Here

The problems in 2012 were legion and they began before voters even made it to the polls. In New Mexico, where the Native population grew more than 11 percent in the last decade, the state ran out of voter registration forms in six counties–half of them in counties with high Native populations. In Arizona, as I’ve previously reported, just setting up polling places involves a fight. Many Navajo, or Diné, must vote in one spot for federal elections and in another for tribal elections. The distances between them, in addition to the long lines reported at several precincts, can easily take several hours to traverse. Many voters didn’t have that kind of time and were essentially forced to choose in which election they would participate.

Elsewhere, Native voters faced Bull Conner-style intimidation. The Indian Legal Clinic, based at ASU’s law school in Phoenix, headed up Native Vote Election Protection in Arizona. Law school students like Ed Hermes scattered throughout Arizona to monitor precincts with heavy Native populations. In the course of six hours, five Maricopa County Sheriff’s vehicles were observed patrolling outside the Guadalupe polling location, which mostly serves Pasqua Yaqui voters. In Pima County, border patrol agents were stopping every vehicle leaving the Tohono O’odham Nation. The agents, accompanied by German Shepherds, were asking drivers about their citizenship. In Yavapai County, a Republican poll watcher was reprimanded for speaking to voters directly.

Once Native voters made it to the polls, Hermes says that his group recorded that many were given provisional ballots, even when it wasn’t warranted. Equally troubling are the many reports of no provisional ballot being issued, despite a voter’s conviction that they were registered. Under the Help America Vote Act, if a voters thinks they should be allowed to vote, they must be handed a provisional ballot–even if they’re not on the rolls.

Hermes, the law student, especially remembers one man, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, who left his polling location without having cast a ballot because his name wasn’t on the rolls. Hermes encouraged him to return and ask for a provisional ballot–but when he did so, poll workers refused to issue one. The voter asked Hermes to join him in his third attempt to obtain a ballot; when Hermes did so, he was kicked out while trying to explain that the voter did have a federal right to vote provisional. Hermes waited outside and the voter finally emerged, but was still unable to obtain a provisional ballot. Feeling defeated by the three-time rejection, the voter left in frustration.

On top of all of these barriers, like many others in Arizona, Native voters also faced confusion over the state’s voter ID law. Despite the fact the law was passed in 2004, it continues to cause disenfranchisement nearly a decade later. "This is still a big problem in Indian Country," says Hermes, referring to the voter ID rules. "And it seems it will continue to be so unless we can make some changes."

By the end of Election Day, the Native Vote Election Protection volunteers in Arizona were able to help at least 37 people who were originally told they couldn’t cast a ballot for a variety of reasons. But it’s impossible to tell how many Native voters were ultimately disenfranchised–not just in Arizona, but also around the country.

It wasn’t all that long ago for Natives that their mothers and fathers fought for the right to vote. Knowing that representatives at every level of government stand to make policy decisions that will result in big impacts for their everyday lives makes obstructions to the ballot box difficult to swallow. Hermes says that he and his team witnessed people willing to get in line again and again just to vote, but that the perseverance–coupled with federal protection, redistricting efforts and election protection work–don’t always ensure the franchise. "It makes it even sadder when folks don’t get to vote," he adds.

Montana Madness

The uphill fight for democracy in Native communities was perhaps most starkly illustrated in Montana, where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester held on to his seat thanks in large part to the Native vote. There, more than a dozen Natives filed suit when the state offered early voting in predominately white areas beginning Oct. 10, but neglected to set up early voting on the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Fort Belknap reservations. The Blackfeet Nation also initially lacked what’s called a satellite county office, which services early voters and late registrants, but the state’s Attorney General issued an advisory to create an office there. Other Natives saw the Blackfeet success as a sign that satellite offices would be established on their reservations as well. But it was not.

The Northern Cheyenne Nation is split between Rosebud and Meade counties. Rosebud’s County Clerk and Recorder, Geraldine Custer, refused the request to accommodate Northern Cheyenne voters. According to court documents, Custer–who is married to a descendent of Col. George Custer–dismissed the idea of setting up a satellite office because she felt there wouldn’t be enough staff available, adding that it would take too long to set up Internet. She proposed that Natives could simply pack buses full of voters to the town of Forsyth. What Custer didn’t mention is that Forsyth is more than a 100 mile round trip for most people on the Northern Cheyenne Nation to a town that is 95 percent white and sometimes culturally hostile to Natives. In the days that followed, Custer would eventually say that she was concerned about voting fraud, adding that she didn’t care about race and that it didn’t matter if the request was made by "Negroes, Chinese, Asians, whatever." The Rosebud County Commission backed Custer and denied the request for an early voting satellite office.

Not to be deterred, 16 Natives filed suit in a Billings, Mont., U.S. District Court against Democratic Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and several county officials, including Custer. As if it wasn’t ironic enough to have George Custer’s descendant kin administrating election rules for the Northern Cheyenne, Judge Richard F. Cebull heard the case. In March 2012, Cebull drew national attention when he sent an email from his chambers that joked about President Obama’s mother having sex with a dog. "I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine," Cebull wrote as he forwarded one of the many racist gutter jokes about Obama’s lineage that have swirled in rightwing circles since 2008.

The Crow Nation’s legislature called for Cebull’s removal as judge, arguing that his email illustrated his inability to maintain objectivity over legal questions involving people of color and Native Americans. But Cebull remained on the case and he refused the plaintiffs’ request for satellite offices on their reservations. That decision was issued just one week before Election Day, and the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations did without satellite offices in this election. It’s unknown if or when early voting will be available for future elections.

Despite all of this, Natives in Montana did participate on Election Day. Sen. Tester credited Montana’s Native vote with initially getting him the seat in 2006 by a razor thin margin and he counted on that vote to keep his seat in 2012. Along with decisive wins for Sen. Martin Heinrich from New Mexico and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, whose victory was decided by less than one percent of the vote, Democrats are hanging on to the Senate in no small part thanks to the power of the Native Vote. Ensuring the franchise for Native voters might keep them there.

Which begs a whole different set of questions about what Native voters are getting for all of their uphill work in these Western states. It’s a question some are already asking of the newly minted Arizona Rep. Kirkpatrick.

Welcome in the Party?

Kirkpatrick’s victory seems to have relied more on a familiar name with a D next to it than on solid policy positions. Water, coal, the use of land and the environment are central issues in Arizona–and the way those issues are legislated, supported, or ignored in Washington largely dictates reality for the Diné.

The Arizona Snowbowl opened its slopes to skiers recently, despite years of objection from Native communities and environmental activists. Set in the San Francisco Peaks just a few miles north of Flagstaff, the Snowbowl dumps flakes–inadvertently yellow in color–created by treated sewage water in an area that is sacrosanct to 13 tribes and nations. But Washington’s done nothing to intervene. Unrelated to the slopes a wildly unpopular bill introduced by Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain that accompanies the similarly unpopular Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado Water Rights Settlement Act was introduced in Congress. Although it didn’t move in the lame duck session, it reminds Natives that Capitol Hill still has a big say in Indian Country.

Yet when I spoke with Kirkpatrick’s district director Lee, who is Diné and whose parents still live on the reservation, he hardly commented on either the Snowbowl or the legislation. While avoiding the term "tribal sovereignty," Lee twice answered that these were issues that needed to be "worked out by tribal communities"–despite the fact that Washington has a strong and definite say in how these matters are resolved. As our conversation moved to energy and coal, Lee was surprised to learn that Kirkpatrick had accepted campaign donations from the Salt River Project, an ALEC corporate board member that owns the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station. When we talked about the effects of coal on the Navajo Nation, Lee mentioned that Kirkpatrick believes in the need to balance creating and protecting jobs based on clean energy while maintaining what he called "the pristine environment."

That balance was violated, some Natives say, when Kirkpatrick went back on a 2008 campaign promise to protect certain portions of land. In 2010, Kirkpatrick proposed a controversial bill to allow Resolution Copper, a multinational mining company, access to Federal Park land–including the Oak Flat area, which is sacred to the San Carlos Apache people. Although it had Republican support, Kirkpatrick’s legislation failed to get through the House, but illustrated that she was willing to back big business, even if it came at a deep cost to Natives.

Andrew Curley is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University’s Department of Developmental Sociology who focuses on coal mining within the reservation and serves on the Commission on Navajo Government Development. He says Arizona’s Native voters, who tend to vote Democrat regardless of who’s running, are caught in a catch-22. "You can either vote Republican and against your own interests, or you can vote Democrat and get someone in office who will ignore you," says Curley.

His father, Lorenzo Curley, is a Navajo Nation Council Delegate who, along with several others, made the unusual decision to endorse Republican candidate Jonathan Paton against Kirkpatrick. The endorsement didn’t seem to affect the Native vote, but it did illustrate the frustration that many Diné feel about a candidate who doesn’t go to bat for their interests in Washington.

Wenona Benally also emerged to challenge Kirkpatrick in the Democratic primary. Benally, who is Diné and, if elected, would have been the first Native American woman in Congress, focused her campaign around the interest of grassroots Natives–running her campaign on clear support for tribal sovereignty, environmental protection and clean energy. Benally has also been a big proponent of immigrant rights in the border state. Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, skipped out on DREAM Act 2010 vote in Washington and called the Department of Justice’s lawsuit over SB1070 an intrusive "sideshow." But Native candidates have thus far had a nearly impossible time making headway in the Democratic Party, which threw its support behind Kirkpatrick.

Andrew Curley remains hopeful that things will change. Although he half-heartedly voted for Kirkpatrick on Election Day, he notes that Arizona is shifting. "What was once a solid red state is now a pink state," he says. "With that, the popular political consciousness of the area is changing and centrist Democrats will be challenged by independent minded Democrats."

As the Idle No More movement spreads beyond Canada and into Native communities across the United States, Curley is right to think that Native voices are contributing to a shift by opening up a conversation about what tribal sovereignty means. The question remains whether those same voices will be allowed to cast ballots in subsequent elections–and whether issues central to their communities will be considered so by future political representatives.