Forgotten Voters: The Fight for Native American Ballot Access In New Mexico Is Alive And Well

By Jennifer Wentworth | Sunday, 02 June 2024 04:10 PM
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Image Credit : AP PhotJohn Locher

In the tribal community of Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, Theresa Pasqual, a staunch advocate for voter participation, is on a mission.

With a stack of sample ballots and absentee ballot applications in her car, she is determined to ensure that every eligible voter in her community is prepared for the upcoming June 4 primary.

The Acoma Pueblo, often referred to as the "sky city," is a testament to the resilience of Native American communities. The pueblo has withstood the test of time, surviving the Spanish invasion in the late 1500s. However, the community, like many others across Indian Country, grapples with the challenges of voting. Polling places are often hours away, and restrictive voter laws and ID requirements only exacerbate the barriers.

Despite the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted citizenship to Native Americans, advocates argue that the right to vote is still not equally accessible to all. The disparities are particularly stark in remote regions across the U.S., and in key Southwestern states with large Native American populations.

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In an attempt to address these inequities, New Mexico has embarked on a new initiative. The state is piloting several new and contested provisions under the Native American Voting Rights Act, passed last year. The Act aims to give tribal communities a greater say in how and where they can vote, even allowing tribal offices to serve as street addresses for remote households that lack standard addresses.

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Pasqual believes this could be a game-changer for Acoma, where some residents still live in a village without standard addresses. She said, "This should help at Acoma, where some residents still live in a village where standard addresses do not exist."

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New Mexico, home to 22 federally recognized tribal communities and holdings of an Oklahoma-based tribe, was among the last states to extend voting rights to Native Americans. This came decades after the U.S. granted birthright citizenship to the land’s original inhabitants on June 2, 1924, through the Indian Citizenship Act.

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The Act was a response to the aftermath of World War I, during which thousands of Native Americans had volunteered to serve overseas in the military. Prior to this, a patchwork of statutes and treaties had offered about two-thirds of Native Americans citizenship, often in exchange for land allotments that fractured reservations, gestures of assimilation, military service, and even the renunciation of tribal traditions. The Indian Citizenship Act aimed to grant citizenship to all Native Americans, without these requirements.

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However, the Act left it to state governments to decide who would be eligible to vote. As a result, legal access to the ballot was denied under existing state constitutional provisions and statutes until 1948 in Arizona and New Mexico, and until 1957 on reservations in Utah.

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Maurice Crandall, an Arizona State University history professor and citizen of the Yavapai-Apache Nation of Camp Verde, believes this was intentional. He said, "They don’t want a large group of Native people who can swing elections.”

Fast forward to 2020, and the Native vote played a crucial role in swinging Arizona into the Biden camp. Biden won Arizona by about 10,500 votes, with a surge in voter turnout on the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

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In New Mexico, voting has empowered Native Americans, as evidenced by the political rise of Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo. Haaland made history in 2018 when she became one of the first two Native American women in Congress. She now heads the Interior Department, overseeing U.S. obligations to 574 federally recognized tribes.

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The upcoming primary will see Laguna at the forefront of two Democratic contests featuring first-time female Native American candidates. These candidates are competing in districts that were redrawn in 2021 to increase Native American influence. In the general election, eligible voters among the 8,000 Laguna residents will cast their ballots in a congressional swing district rematch between U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez and Republican Yvette Herrell, who lost in 2022 by 1,350 votes. Herrell seldom invokes her Cherokee heritage.

The new voting rights legislation for Native Americans in New Mexico provides tribal communities with new tools to request convenient on-reservation voting sites and secure ballot deposit boxes. It also mandates consultation with county clerks and provides an appeals process.

However, obstacles remain. Laguna Pueblo tribal administrator Ashley M. Sarracino highlighted tensions with county election administrators over a decision to withdraw three Election Day voting sites at the pueblo this year, leaving only three open.

In Arizona, the anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act has stirred up frustration among Native American leaders, including Gov. Stephen Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community. He has criticized efforts by the Republican National Committee and state lawmakers to revive and extend voter ID requirements through the 2024 general election.

Lewis, during a recent online forum, counted the years that passed between the time the U.S. Declaration of Independence was inked and the Indian Citizenship Act was signed. He said elected officials for years have "made laws for us, about us, but never with us.”

Torey Dolan, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School and citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, noted that Native Americans have held widely divergent views about citizenship and voting. Some view U.S. citizenship as incompatible with being Indigenous people; others see it more like dual citizenship.

With the approval of the citizenship act, many Native Americans feared the expansion of U.S. citizenship might undermine the special status of trust land that allows tribes to make their own decisions about tax-exempt land and shield it from speculators.

Geoffrey Blackwell, general counsel to the National Congress of American Indians, said, “It was really seen in many parts of Indian Country as being aimed at breaking down tribal cultures, particularly in the Southwest.”

Despite these challenges, some Native Americans believed that ensuring voting rights was worth the fight. In 1948, Isleta Pueblo member and World War II military veteran Miguel Trujillo challenged the status quo that barred Native Americans in New Mexico from voting by attempting to vote in Valencia County. His rejection sparked a landmark lawsuit that was supported by Washington-based federal Indian law pioneer Felix Cohen and the National Congress of American Indians.

A 1956 federal survey of Native voting in the Southwest found low participation, with no polling places set up at New Mexico pueblos. In Arizona, Jim Crow-style discrimination set in with widespread application of literacy tests to block Native-language speakers from voting until the practice was barred in 1970 under the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 spurred a new movement within tribal communities to encourage participation, said Laura Harris, the Albuquerque-based director of Americans for Indian Opportunity and a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.

However, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Justice Department election oversight in states with a history of discrimination. Since then, several states have enacted new voting laws that some legal experts say make it unreasonably difficult for Native Americans to vote, including a flurry of restrictions from Republicans enacted in the wake of the 2020 election.

Despite these setbacks, in New Mexico, the Sandoval County clerk's office has expanded early voting services in recent years for Navajo and pueblo communities. Only one pueblo declined the opportunity this year. Native language interpreters are posted at each of the sites, which are open to all county residents.

Evelyn Sandoval, a liaison to Native Americans with the county attorney's office, is teaching families how to use newly available tools to register online and receive absentee ballots by mail. She said, “I’m trying to get them to be self-reliant.”

The struggle for equal voting rights for Native Americans continues, but advocates like Pasqual, Sarracino, and Sandoval are committed to ensuring that every voice in their communities is heard.

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