The 2020 election cycle brought historic voter turnout, as well as ongoing discussions of how different racial and ethnic groups cast their ballots. Notably, preliminary exit polls show white voters favored President Trump, while Black and Latinx voters’ support contributed to Joe Biden winning the presidency. But increased turnout of Native American voters, particularly those living in swing states, may have played a key role as well.
However, in the aftermath of the election, when a CNN exit poll graphic broke down voters by race, the categories on display in the chart were: white, Latino, Black, Asian, and “Something Else.” This categorization drew widespread criticism for its erasure of Native and Indigenous people.
Matthew Fletcher, a professor of law at Michigan State University and the director of the Indigenous Law & Policy Center, says politicians and organizations frequently disregard the potential power of Native people and their votes.
“If you get into a state like Arizona or New Mexico, where the Native vote is upwards of 10% of the population, you really do so at your own risk,” he said. Arizona recently swung blue for President-Elect Joe Biden, and many of its Democratic ballots outside of city centers came from areas with tribal lands.
A history of suppression
Fletcher says that in the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act, which attempted to curb disenfranchisement of Black voters in the South, also addressed a number of areas in the U.S. with large Native populations. These were counties with long histories of suppression of the Native vote.
Even now, Fletcher says some of his law students based in rural areas told him they experienced difficulty voting during the 2020 election.
“You show up with your ID that says you’re from a reservation, you have a P.O. Box as an address, and the nice people that are there at the election booth, the poll workers, don’t know what to do with that. And so they just say, ‘You need to leave until you come back with a real ID,’ Fletcher said.
Creating a voting bloc
For the past few decades, Fletcher says, tribes and national organizations like the National Congress of American Indians have been working to bring more Native people to the polls.
“We’re starting to see that in some of the states where there’s a lot of Indian Country that those national elections for president, for Senate, are very close, and ten, twenty thousand votes can make a big difference,” he said. “If you have a state like Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Michigan, where you have more than just a few thousand Native voters, they can really create a bloc, a voting bloc. And I think Native people are starting to realize that.”
But as with all voting blocs, nuances remain. Fletcher says that while many Native voters opt for Democratic candidates, the Republican Party’s messaging and promises could appeal to some tribes, depending on their unique priorities.
“Our vote is sort of a sleeping giant”
Rural areas are often seen as Republican strongholds. But Fletcher says that’s not a given.
He says Northern Michigan areas like Marquette, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse Counties—where Democratic-leaning Keweenaw Bay and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians communities are—could swing increasingly blue in the future if more Native voters cast their ballots. In the 2020 election, Leelanau County swung Democratic, with President-Elect Biden winning 52% of the vote, compared with 2016 when President Trump won the county with 49.1% of the ballots.
But Fletcher says that while the Democratic Party has responded to some issues that matter to Native voters, they could—and should—have done more to court the Michigan Native vote. Meanwhile, some members of Native communities have been running for office themselves, he says.
“I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to see some more Native people, some of them who are alums of the law school where I teach, are going to run for office and they’re going to start to win,” he said. “When you have a strong Native vote in places out West—Montana, New Mexico, Arizona—you have Native people in office in the state government and have more people thinking about being in office in the federal government.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.