By: Aspen Miller

The dangers, risks, and barriers to voting has far more impacted Indigenous voters. Although this article highlights the Navajo Nation tribal voters, Indigenous suffrage continues across the nation and must be acknowledged and recognized. Indigenous voters actively take their voices to the polls to be heard. Many of the challenges highlighted in this article are shared experiences for Indigenous voters across the nation. 

The Navajo Nation has suffered greatly during this pandemic. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency shut downs in March, Navajo tribal members living on the reservation have faced greater difficultly in securing water and healthcare. Within the Navajo Nation Tribe the death toll currently stands at 595 with COVID-19 cases on the rise. Despite these increasing hardships, hundreds of Navajo voters turned out in-person to exercise their right to vote.  

November 3, 2020 marked a historic presidential election. The opportunity to choose the leader of the country was provided. However, how to exercise this choice varies state to state. Whether voting in-person, by mail, locating a drop box, or going to an early voting location is some of the choices a voter must consider along with registration deadlines and location closures. Mail in votes were a practical alternative to voting in-person due to the pandemic and early voting records were broken as a result. Within the State of Arizona alone, over two million casted early mail ballots. Overall, across the United States, 100 million votes were cast early by mail.

The record number of early votes may seem to indicate that voting during the 2020 election was easier than it has ever been, but that was not the case for many Native voters. Many homes on the reservation do not have mailing addresses and Tribal members commonly rely on PO boxes shared among multiple family members to receive mail. Some voters on the Navajo Nation reservation have estimated that they have to drive anywhere from 40 to 150 miles roundtrip to pick up their mail. Within the Navajo Nation reservation’s 27,425 square miles, there are just 24 post offices and 15 postal service providers—only slightly smaller geographically but with a bigger population, the state of West Virginia is covered by 725 post offices and postal service provider sites. Navajo voters also expressed frustration with information regarding early voter drop boxes. Potential voters would take time out of their day to  travel to a drop box only to find that it was closed. Because of these barriers many Navajo voters chose to vote in-person.

On election day, the biggest turnout was reported in Chinle and Red Mesa polling locations. Both of these polling locations were reported to have opened an hour later than scheduled—though thankfully, the Navajo Nation successfully sued the Apache County Recorder’s office on election day to keep both Chinle and Red Mesa open later.[1] In the early morning, Chinle already had a line as patient voters waited, warm in their cars, or stood in line wearing heavy coats and blankets eager to vote.[2] The Chinle polling location stayed busy all day as voters carpooled, biked, walked, or received curbside assistance to vote. Both the Chinle and Red Mesa proceeded to stay open until 8:15 PM to make up for the time lost and provide for the high turnout of voters.[3]  Voters’ ages ranged from newly eighteen to eighty and many expressed it was their first-time voting. Whether it was an elder slowly approaching with the aid of a walker through the dirt, emergency personnel arriving during lunchbreak in their ambulance, a mother bouncing her fussy baby while in line, or a man jumping out of the back of a truck after his shift, all showcased a sincere belief and sacrifice to make their vote count.

The Navajo Nation overlays Apache County, Navajo County and Coconino County within Arizona. These counties also overlap with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Hopi Tribe, and Zuni Tribe. In fact, Indigenous peoples make up 6% of Arizona’s population. Despite the hardships and suffering due to the pandemic Navajo and Native voters stood strong and displayed courage exercising their right to vote. All three counties currently counted votes totaled 73,954 for Joe Biden and 2,010 for President Donald Trump. The Indigenous votes helped solidify Arizona’s swinging status to blue.

Despite the significant role that indigenous people played in the 2020 election, like so many times in the past, their efforts have gone unrecognized. On election day, CNN updated election results included a graphic dividing and calculating the country’s voter percentage by race. The voters were divided into White, Latino, Black, Asian, and lastly, “something else”. To exclude the existence of a people that pre-dates the federal government and whose land this nation is built upon is insulting. A blatantly ignorant and insulting label, the Native American Journalists Association stated, “Being Native American is a political classification — not merely a racial background. Native nations have had a government-to-government relationship with the United States since the country’s earliest days. To refer to Indigenous voters as ‘something else’ fails to recognize the sovereignty and political classification of Native voters.” Although the term “something else” demeans Indigenous Peoples’ identity, it is a familiar attitude shown by the United States. History shows how Native voters faced and overcame countless obstacles, barriers, and racism to reach the polls. Native Voters continue to face these familiar barriers reflecting how they truly are “something else”.

[1] Navajo Nation v. Edison Wauneka, No. S-0100-CV-202000182 (Apache Sup. Ct. Ariz. Nov. 3, 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.