More Native Americans urged to cast votes
Jacqueline Johnson Pata thought about the question and ran her hand through her hair.
It’s a question that keeps her up at night and motivates her all through the day.
Is it harder to get an 80-year-old Native American to vote or a 20-year-old?
An 80-year-old Indian,” she said slowly, “but they are both kind of challenging.
“An 80-year-old has felt enough disenfranchisement to have a reluctance to engage. A 20-year-old has a sense of hopelessness. That’s difficult to get past, too.”
Johnson Pata is executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, which is trying to increase voter participation among Indians heading into the Nov. 4 election.Her efforts are best represented by a simple button that appeared on nearly every chest at this week’s NCAI conference in Phoenix.
The button says: “I’m Indian and I vote.”
Making sure that actually happens is not going to be easy.
“Indians do not vote in high numbers,” said Ken Poocha, Arizona’s executive director for Indian affairs. “It has gotten better in recent elections, but we have a long way to go.”
Analyzing low turnout
One reason for low turnout is geography, as many Indians in the state and across the country live in rural areas.
That can make just getting to the ballot box difficult, Poocha said.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office is precluded by law from tracking the voting patterns of any race, ethnicity or gender, department spokesman Kevin Tyne said.
But he said the office is actively trying to encourage increased voter participation “across the board, and particularly on reservations.”
Those efforts include registration-outreach programs and education through town halls across Arizona, Tyne said.
A total of 224,846 Native Americans in Arizona are old enough to vote, according to Native Vote, the nonpartisan voting program run by the NCAI.
They represent a potentially significant voting bloc. But only if they vote.
“I see a lot of Native peoples not voting. They think nothing is going to change, so why bother?” said Al Thomas Spencer, 34, of Mesa, who is of Navajo, Hopi and Zuni ancestry. “But, of course, nothing will change if you don’t vote.”
Johnson Pata hopes to eventually get Native Americans to participate in non-Indian politics as much as they do in Indian politics.
“We show up to vote in tremendous numbers for reservation politics. It can be up to 90 percent,” she said. “But there is a disconnect.”
Native Vote has encouraged tribes to hold their elections on the same day as general elections as a means to increase participation.
That will be the case this year on the Navajo Reservation, where ballots will also be available in the Navajo language.
The Indian vote’s impact
The NCAI points to two recent campaigns where Indian voting appeared to significantly influence the outcome of elections.
In 2002, Sen. Tim Johnson won his seat in South Dakota by a margin of just 524 votes out of more than 330,000 cast. Johnson campaigned aggressively for Indian votes. In 2006, Sen. Jon Tester won his seat in Montana by 3,500 votes, also after working hard to garner votes on Indian reservations.
Results like these give some Indian voters hope.
Emma Polelonema, 54, a Hopi living in Phoenix, was picking up an “I’m Indian and I vote” button at the NCAI conference at the Phoenix Convention Center. “We’re not visible enough,” she said. “We need to push our young people to vote. And our elders, who are not likely to vote, we need them, too.”
Aanya Smallcanyon, 25, a Navajo from Kayenta, said she plans to vote in November, and, as a volunteer for Native Vote, she hopes to get more of her generation to join her. “It matters so much,” she said. “If we don’t vote, we are just throwing this time, this opportunity, away.”