Nicole Horseherder lives two miles away from her closest neighbor on the Navajo reservation in Black Mesa, Ariz. She has no mailbox and no street address. The nearest post office requires a 30-mile bumpy ride along unpaved dirt roads.
So when Horseherder’s mail-in ballot had not arrived by mid-October, she was worried.
“I was seriously thinking I’m not going to receive my ballot,” said Horseherder, who is 50 and head of the Navajo environmental justice nonprofit Tó Nizhóní ání.
Though her ballot eventually did arrive, Horseherder said she is still concerned about her vote being received and counted by Election Day, given coronavirus restrictions have increased reliance on mail-in ballots and exacerbated nationwide U.S. Postal Service delays.
Her sentiments are shared by many Indigenous peoples and Native American rights advocates who say those living in isolated areas of reservations with limited transportation were not considered when many states expanded mail-in voting this election season to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“That shift to all vote-by-mail left Native Americans out of the conversation because vote-by-mail doesn’t work in Indian country,” said Jacqueline De León, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund and an enrolled member of the Isleta Pueblo, a Native American tribe in New Mexico.
The Native American Rights Fund and other groups have filed lawsuits demanding that various states — including Nevada, Montana, South Dakota, Alaska and Arizona — extend their ballot receipt deadlines, open satellite election offices on reservations and decriminalize ballot collecting, which allows non-relatives to gather and submit ballots on another’s behalf.
These efforts are critical to protecting Native American voting rights that were already hindered by poor access to voter registration offices and polling stations and other barriers, De León said. The pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Indigenous communities in the United States, has further jeopardized native people’s ability to vote, with polling stations closing, post offices reducing their hours and mandatory shutdowns and curfews limiting voter education and registration activities on reservations.
The obstacles have come during an election year when Native communities have a high incentive to vote, said OJ Semans, the co-executive director of Four Directions, a nonpartisan Native American voting rights organization based in South Dakota. Sacred lands and ancestral burial sites have been negatively affected by construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico and the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, he said, projects supported by the Trump administration.
“I think you’ll see a higher voter turnout in Indian country than you have in past elections, even with the barriers,” Semans said.
Native American voting patterns vary widely by tribe and geography. In a 2017 survey, 30 percent of Native American respondents nationwide described themselves as Democrats, 23 percent as Republicans and 30 percent as independents, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard’s School of Public Health and NPR.
Both President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have released plans to support tribal nations. But Semans and other Native advocates said Trump’s newly stated commitment to native peoples contradicts his words and actions during the past four years.
Earlier this month, Trump criticized those in support of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day, calling them “extremists” in a White House proclamation.
“It has been a constant battle with this administration,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and recently met with Biden and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris in Arizona. He cited his struggles to secure federal Cares Act funding to support the Navajo people during the coronavirus crisis and the Trump administration’s decision to end the 2020 Census count early, which Nez says will lead to an undercount of native people.
These factors will be considered as Native voters cast their ballot, Semans said. But the Trump reelection campaign is also creating obstacles in that process, fighting several voting-access lawsuits filed by tribal members.
The Trump reelection campaign in August challenged a newly enacted voter protection law in Nevada that legalized ballot collection during emergencies. In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Nevada, the campaign and the Republican National Committee argued that “those provisions will undermine the November election’s integrity.” After De León and her team intervened on behalf of the Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute tribes, the court decided the law would be upheld at least through the November election.
The Native American Rights Fund called the decision vital, considering only 35 percent of reservations in Nevada have home mail service.
Native advocates recently scored a win in Montana, as well, where De León helped the Blackfeet Nation negotiate an agreement with Pondera County officials to set up a satellite election office on the reservation where residents will be able to register to vote and participate in in-person voting. But the county agreed only after De León and the ACLU of Montana sued, claiming a refusal to set up such an office was in violation of the Constitution, the state constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Other efforts to expand Native Americans’ voting access have been unsuccessful ahead of the November election. Attorneys for the reelection campaign intervened after six Navajo tribal members sued Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to extend the state’s ballot receipt deadline. They demanded that those postmarked by Nov. 3 from Navajo Nation reservations be accepted and counted for up to 10 days after Election Day.
The plaintiffs argued that refusing to extend the ballot receipt deadline places “unconstitutional burdens” on Navajo Nation voters during the pandemic. They contended that delayed and unreliable mail service on reservations gave people living on Navajo Nation only 15 days to request, consider and cast their ballots by mail, compared to 25 days for non-native voters living in affluent areas of Arizona, such as Scottsdale.
But the Trump campaign argued that granting such an extension would cause confusion ahead of Election Day and show preferential treatment for people living on Arizona reservations, where about 45 percent of registered voters are Democrats and 23 percent are Republicans, according to the Indian Law Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
On the Navajo Nation, about 62 percent of registered Arizona voters are Democrats and about 10 percent are Republicans.
The Trump campaign noted the extension “would unquestionably affect the share of votes that candidates in the State of Arizona receive.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld Arizona’s Nov. 3 ballot receipt deadline.
In Pima County, Ariz., which includes the Pascua Yaqui reservation and the city of Tucson, another federal court ruled this week that the county does not have to reinstate the only in-person early-voting site on the reservation, which was removed in 2018.
Advocates say these decisions will make it harder for tribal members to cast their ballots in a key swing state where the native vote could play a deciding role in the 2020 presidential election and a highly contested Senate race.
To make sure they have the opportunity to voice their pick, Four Directions and other organizations have been toiling for months in the desert sun to run pandemic-safe drive-through voter-registration drives on the Navajo Nation and hiring tribal members — especially those with cars — to conduct outreach in harder to reach areas.
In Arizona, only about 30 percent of tribal member households have a car.
“We’re lucky to have a ride,” said 33-year-old Nicole Miles, a Navajo Nation member who lives with her mother and grandmother on a reservation in St. Michaels, Ariz. She lost her job as a medical assistant at a local school for people with disabilities after the pandemic hit, and Four Directions recently hired her.
Miles has been driving her Nissan Versa through mountainous areas to talk with isolated elders about voting, get them registered and make sure they have a plan for casting their ballots. She said their interest piques when she speaks to them in their native Navajo language and tells them: “Their vote matters.”
But it is these elders who especially like to vote in person, not by mail.
Even though Horseherder has already sent off her mail-in ballot, she now has to figure out how to get her 77-year-old mother and other elders in her family to an in-person early-voting site to avoid crowds and reduce their risk of contracting the virus.
“They like to feel the paper in their hands. They like to be able to walk to the box and slip their ballot into the box and hear the little beep,” Horseherder said. “They feel that it’s done that way.”