How Native organizers won voting access and reached record turnout in 2020

Native Americans overcame multiple challenges to turn out in record numbers during the 2020 elections, playing a crucial role in Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. One of those challenges: many Native reservations lack their own polling sites, forcing residents to sometimes travel hours to cast a ballot. As part of our series “Defending Democracy in the 2022 Midterm Elections,” TRNN’s Jaisal Noor and Carly Sauvageau speak with leaders of the Walker River Paiute and Pyramid Lake Paiute, two tribes that successfully sued Nevada for the right to get polling sites on their reservations, which played a key role in Native organizers’ efforts to mobilize and empower their community.

Pre-Production/Studio: Jaisal Noor
Post-Production: Jaisal Noor, Cameron Granadino

This story is part of a series that was made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.


Transcript

Amber Torres:      They try to put up any barrier that they can to make sure that our people don’t get to the voting polls.

Jaisal Noor:          Despite a century of voter suppression, Native Americans turned out in record numbers for the 2020 elections.

Janet Davis:         We’ve had young students from our high school, from their government class, our local BIE school. They came and registered to vote, and they voted as a class.

Jaisal Noor:          The historic turnout played a pivotal role in a number of Senate races and in securing Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump. In Arizona, for example, which has voted Republican every presidential election since 1996, voters living on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in the Northeast cast around 60,000 ballots, increasing turnout by nearly 20,000 compared to the 2016 election. Exit polls showed these precincts voting heavily for Biden, who flipped the state by a thin margin of 10,000 votes.

Janet Davis:         One of our eldest, and she was a hundred years old, and it was her first time voting.

Jaisal Noor:          A culmination of tireless efforts of Native voting rights activists and landmark court cases. Native Americans won their right to US citizenship a century ago in 1924, but had to fight for the next 40 years to secure the right to vote in every single state. Even then, voting rights on paper didn’t translate to voting rights in practice, as Native people face the same racist tools of voter disenfranchisement that the white establishment used against Black voters, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and vigilante violence and intimidation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a major intervention by the federal government to put an end to these forms of voter suppression, but systemic obstacles to voting for Native Americans have persisted to this day.

Amber Torres:      Well, I think the most unique is transportation, times of voting, the availability on our own local homeland.

Jaisal Noor:          Many Native Americans don’t live and vote on sovereign reservations, but voting laws are especially unaccommodating for those who do. Along with having to navigate voting without traditional addresses and IDs, the scarcity of polling places on tribal lands has contributed to some of the lowest voter registration and turnout rates.

Amber Torres:      Our people feel that their voice is not being heard, or it doesn’t matter that their vote doesn’t count.

Jaisal Noor:          But things may be changing, because people on the ground are fighting to change them. In a landmark 2016 case, two Nevada tribes, Walker River Paiute and Pyramid Lake Paiute, successfully argued in federal court that a lack of local voting centers violated their Constitutional rights.

Janet Davis:         Our case is actually a case that is cited in different laws for other reservations and communities throughout Indian country to follow. Distance, the inequity at the ballot box.

Jaisal Noor:          This victory was a watershed moment for Nevada’s Native tribes, says Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe chairwoman, Janet Davis.

Janet Davis:         To me that shows the tell tale of Native voter suppression, and how, since we opened our polling site, how we were able to overcome that.

Jaisal Noor:          The grassroots effort that led to this historic ruling offers a crash course in how people can take democracy into their own hands. Walker River Paiute chairman Amber Torres says the tribe used a number of strategies to get people engaged such as inviting candidates to their reservation to address Native issues directly.

Amber Torres:      We set up meet and greets for those who are running for the different positions to come in and talk to our constituents.

Jaisal Noor:          Leading Democratic presidential candidates took part in a historic Native American presidential forum ahead of the 2020 election, directly addressing tribal issues for the first time. And tribes in Nevada also engaged in extensive outreach efforts across the vast state to ensure all tribe members who want to vote are able to.

Amber Torres:      We just try to get them all the tools that they need to make sure to place that vote. Also, trying to line up rides if that’s what they need, because transportation is a huge issue.

Nicholas Cortez: The entire way I got into the poll working field was because our tribe had to sue for access to a polling site.

Jaisal Noor:          Another crucial facet to this victory for tribe members was winning the right to staff the voting sites with members of their own community, says Nicholas Cortez, who has served as a poll worker since he turned 18.

Nicholas Cortez:A major push for our tribe was to implement the idea of including our own people in this polling station, because our people would be more willing and open to coming to a place where they knew people.

Jaisal Noor:          Combined grassroots efforts have helped spark a dramatic increase in both voter registration and turnout in Nevada’s Native reservations.

Janet Davis:         We actually had over a 70% increase in registered voters and people that actually came to vote on the first time that our polls opened.

Jaisal Noor:          Tribes have won similar victories in other states, but what sets Nevada apart is what happened after the court ruling. In 2017, Nevada’s governor signed Senate Bill 492 into law. All of the state’s 27 tribes were able to request polling sites on their tribal lands. Being battered by COVID-19, many states enacted measures to make voting in 2020 safer and more accessible, such as expanding people’s ability to vote by mail or submit absentee ballots. These measures helped produce that years record voter participation. But based on the lie that voter fraud cost Donald Trump the election, many states have since rolled back these measures and passed dozens of new laws that make it harder for people to vote in future elections. Nevada bucked this trend, however, by codifying many of those emergency measures into law, such as universal vote by mail, increased drop boxes, and same day voter registration.

Nicholas Cortez:Previously it was, if you register during early voting then you’ll be allowed to vote during general, but you won’t be able to vote during early voting. Now we can get you registered today and we can get you voting today. I think that’s benefited a lot of people because it allows them to see that change immediately.

Jaisal Noor:          Nevada has some of the strongest voting rights in the country, and in recent years has expanded the right to vote for the state’s approximately 80,000 previously incarcerated people and expanded access to voters with disabilities. But this doesn’t mean the fight to ensure everyone has equal access to the ballot is over.

Kerry Durmick:    The takeaway from working with our county clerks and working with the tribal nations and working with the Native led tribal organizations is that even though Nevada has succeeded in expanding access to the ballot, we still have work to do to make voting access fair and equitable for everyone across the state.

Jaisal Noor:          Kerry Durmick is Nevada’s state director for All Voting is Local, a grassroots group that’s worked with tribes and voting rights groups to maintain pressure on local county commissioners to respect the legal rights of tribes.

Kerry Durmick:    We’re working to push the Secretary of State’s office to provide more oversight to these county clerks, to make sure that the county clerks are serving the tribal nations in the same way that they’re serving every other resident that wants to vote in the county.

Jaisal Noor:          While Native communities have had record voter turnout in recent years, they have also had low registration rates according to a report published by the Inter-tribal Council of Nevada and All Voting is Local.

Kerry Durmick:    Native Americans had the highest turnout demographically in 2020. They have the lowest voter registration rates.

Jaisal Noor:          A lack of nearby DMVs to obtain state ID required to vote is one major barrier.

Kerry Durmick:    In some cases, the DMV is extremely far away from our tribal nations, like in some cases an hour or more.

Jaisal Noor:          While Nevada has not passed state laws to restrict voting access based on the big lie, that hasn’t stopped voter suppression efforts from being introduced on the county level.

Kerry Durmick:    Some of the rural counties are attempting to change the election systems to paper ballots and hand counting ballots, which would discriminate against voters with disabilities, potentially discriminate against voters or anybody that live in that county because it would increase the length of the line in order to vote. Voters could get frustrated and leave instead of being able to cast their ballot that day.

Jaisal Noor:          Those efforts have thus far been thwarted thanks to a big pushback from voting rights advocates. Winning and protecting the right to vote requires the full community’s support, says chairwoman Janet Davis.

Janet Davis:         That is the strategy. You have to get all your community involved, your tribal government involved. It has to be a big push from everyone. You have to have volunteers involved as well. We went door to door getting our voters registered.

Jaisal Noor:          While Natives have made great strides in recent years in expanding ballot access, tribes still face tremendous challenges overcoming centuries of genocide and settler colonialism.

Nicholas Cortez:The fear that you’re going to be treated as a second class citizen. Even today, we’re still trying to fight that or combat it to improve our quality of life, because a lot of times people forget about that. They forget that tribes struggle at an unprecedented rate compared to other communities.

Jaisal Noor:          For The Real News with Carly Sauvageau, this is Jaisal Noor.

Jaisal Noor

Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.