Native Voters Could Swing the 2020 Election—If They’re Able to Vote

Menominee tribal citizens are working to make Native votes count in Wisconsin

Stephanie Woodard

Guy Reiter, executive director of grassroots Native group Menikanaehkem, uses digital tools and information to assist voters on the reservation of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. KILIII YUYAN VIA EARTHJUSTICE

MENOM­I­NEE COUN­TY, Wis. — The pow­er of Native vot­ers to decide the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion can­not be over­stat­ed, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D‑Kan.), a Ho-Chunk Nation cit­i­zen, told the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in August. States with siz­able Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions — Ari­zona, Min­neso­ta and oth­ers — are in play, Davids said. Even Wisconsin’s small Native vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion could impact the race for the White House, accord­ing to Davids. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump won Wis­con­sin in 2016 by just 0.77%, while Indige­nous vot­ers make up about 1.5% of the state’s elec­torate, accord­ing to the Nation­al Con­gress of Amer­i­can Indi­ans (NCAI).

To get peo­ple to the polls, a grass­roots advo­ca­cy group called Menikanaehkem, based on the 235,000-acre reser­va­tion of the fed­er­al­ly rec­og­nized Menom­i­nee Indi­an Tribe of Wis­con­sin, is work­ing with the Native-orga­niz­ing arm of Wis­con­sin Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers on dig­i­tal ways to com­mu­ni­cate with fel­low trib­al mem­bers about this year’s issues and vot­ing pro­ce­dures. The group, whose name is pro­nounced men-ee-KAHN-ah-kem (trans­lat­ed as com­mu­ni­ty rebuilders”), sup­ports the well-being of Menom­i­nees liv­ing among the green hills, rush­ing rivers and sparkling water­falls of north­east­ern Wisconsin.

Dur­ing Wisconsin’s April pri­ma­ry elec­tion, in-per­son vot­ers faced long lines and the risk of Covid-19 infec­tion to cast their bal­lots. To pre­vent this from recur­ring, Menikanaehkem is encour­ag­ing use of the absen­tee, or mail-in, option — as is Menom­i­nee Coun­ty, whose bor­ders cor­re­spond with the reservation’s and which han­dles nation­al elec­tions there.

While the Menom­i­nee reser­va­tion, accord­ing to Menikanaehkem Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Guy Reit­er, enjoys rel­a­tive­ly good mail ser­vice, postal ser­vice in many Native Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, like access to phys­i­cal polling places, has long been unre­li­able and inequitable. Postal slow-downs dur­ing mail-in vot­ing would like­ly hit these com­mu­ni­ties par­tic­u­lar­ly hard.

A drop in Native vot­er turnout could have con­se­quences across the coun­try. Native Amer­i­cans are more involved and influ­en­tial in U.S. elec­tions than is com­mon­ly under­stood—field­ing scores of can­di­dates for state and nation­al office, run­ning pres­i­den­tial can­di­date forums and man­ag­ing ener­getic get-out-the-vote cam­paigns. With around 3.7 mil­lion Native peo­ple of vot­ing age con­cen­trat­ed in West­ern states — and this vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion account­ing for up to 11% of the elec­torate in New Mex­i­co, 12% in Okla­homa and 17% in Alas­ka, as tab­u­lat­ed by NCAI — Native vot­ers can dra­mat­i­cal­ly shape elec­tion results. Trib­al back­ing has helped many can­di­dates, among them Lt. Gov Peg­gy Flana­gan (D‑Minn.), Sen. Jon Tester (D‑Mont.), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D‑Wash.), for­mer Sen. Mark Begich (D‑Alaska), for­mer Sen. Hei­di Heitkamp (D‑N.D.), for­mer Sen. Tim John­son (D‑S.D.) and for­mer Sen. Tom Daschle (D‑S.D.).

To make sure every Menom­i­nee vote counts this year, Wis­con­sin Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers is help­ing Menikanaehkem and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of oth­er trib­al nations reach out to their com­mu­ni­ties through text mes­sages, social media, email, and vir­tu­al town halls. These dig­i­tal tech­niques have become essen­tial to cam­paigns in the pan­dem­ic era, as for­mer­ly rou­tine meet­ings and can­vass­ing efforts become poten­tial­ly haz­ardous. Reit­er explains: It’s hard to be a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er if you can’t be in the community.

Hur­dles to Native voting 

Since being grant­ed U.S. cit­i­zen­ship and suf­frage in 1924, Native peo­ple have brought scores of law­suits to exer­cise their vot­ing rights. Some Native vot­ers still face harass­ment, dis­tant and hard-to-access precinct offices, reduced or unpre­dictable vot­ing times, and the refusal of poll work­ers to accept the kinds of per­son­al iden­ti­fi­ca­tion they ordi­nar­i­ly carry.

The pan­dem­ic adds new bar­ri­ers: This year, because of Covid-19, many vot­ers will rely on mail-in bal­lots to cast their votes. But as In These Times has report­ed, many trib­al cit­i­zens do not have home mail deliv­ery but rely on P.O. box­es or gen­er­al deliv­ery in dis­tant post offices. On some reser­va­tions, these are small con­tract facil­i­ties with incon­sis­tent ser­vice and lim­it­ed hours.

A recent study con­duct­ed around the Nava­jo Nation offers a warn­ing. Native vot­ing rights group Four Direc­tions sent test mail­ings from towns in and around the reser­va­tion and found that while mail from some major­i­ty-white com­mu­ni­ties typ­i­cal­ly took a day to get to the coun­ty polling place, Nava­jo mail took as many as 10 days.

Four Direc­tions is assist­ing Nava­jo plain­tiffs with a fed­er­al vot­ing-rights law­suit that fea­tures the mail study. The law­suit asks Ari­zona to allow addi­tion­al time for Nava­jo mail-in bal­lots to be counted. 

Bret Healy, a con­sul­tant for the group, puts it this way: “[Mail ser­vice on the reser­va­tion] was bad before the pan­dem­ic, and any slow­down or con­fu­sion makes it worse.” Healy pre­dicts a cat­a­stroph­ic drop” in vot­er turnout across Indi­an coun­try if such prob­lems aren’t fixed.

Mean­while, in the Dako­tas, the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Lako­ta People’s Law Project recent­ly joined Sen. Tom Udall (D‑N.M.) and U.S. House Assis­tant Speak­er Ben Ray Luján (D‑N.M.) to work on pas­sage of the Native Amer­i­can Vot­ing Rights Act. The bill would man­date acces­si­ble polling places, increased vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, bet­ter access to fed­er­al elec­tion mon­i­tors and oth­er improve­ments for Native communities.

Sav­ing the good place”

Accord­ing to Reit­er, many Native vot­ers are more dri­ven by issues than can­di­dates and par­ties. They are always inter­est­ed in health and edu­ca­tion issues, he says, and have grave con­cerns about chal­lenges to trib­al sov­er­eign­ty and harm to land, water and sacred places. As in the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight against the Dako­ta Access Pipeline (DAPL), Native peo­ple are often the spear­point in envi­ron­men­tal clash­es with out­comes that affect mil­lions of people. 

In addi­tion to push­ing for pipelines, such as DAPL and Key­stone XL, to be built through or near Native home­lands, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has dimin­ished fed­er­al pro­tec­tion for vast areas of nat­ur­al beau­ty and trib­al cul­tur­al mean­ing, includ­ing Bears Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ment in Utah. A major wor­ry in north­east­ern Wis­con­sin is the Back Forty Mine, an open-pit met­als mine pro­posed for just over the bor­der in Michi­gan. Wisconsin’s name comes from a Menom­i­nee expres­sion mean­ing a good place to live,” and Menom­i­nees say the mine will degrade that good place. They pre­dict dam­age to cen­turies-old gar­den sites, cer­e­mo­ni­al places and bur­ial mounds.

Accord­ing to Earth­jus­tice, the law firm rep­re­sent­ing the tribe in lit­i­ga­tion against the mine, its harms would go much far­ther. Tox­ic acid drainage from the mine will con­t­a­m­i­nate the Menom­i­nee Riv­er, the firm says. The riv­er flows into Lake Michi­gan, one of the Great Lakes, which togeth­er con­tain one-fifth of the planet’s sur­face fresh­wa­ter. Chica­go, Mil­wau­kee and oth­er cities and towns down­stream from the pro­posed mine pull their drink­ing water from this gigan­tic con­ti­nen­tal reservoir.

Also wor­ri­some for the Menom­i­nees is explorato­ry drilling under­way for a met­als mine in the head­wa­ters of the Wolf Riv­er. This Wis­con­sin Nation­al Scenic Riv­er aris­es north of the Menom­i­nee Reser­va­tion and flows through it. 

Though the chal­lenges are huge, Reit­er says, his peo­ple and oth­er trib­al cit­i­zens will per­sist in fight­ing to pro­tect the earth. As long as this earth is here, as long as we’re here, we’ll nev­er give up,” he says. To vote in a way that sup­ports that effort, You have to do your home­work.” Though Democ­rats have his­tor­i­cal­ly been coop­er­a­tive about envi­ron­men­tal issues, so have some Repub­li­cans, Reit­er says — so he is pro­duc­ing paper and dig­i­tal elec­tion score­cards to chart and clar­i­fy can­di­dates’ posi­tions on issues impor­tant to Indige­nous people.

Lead­ing from tradition 

Menom­i­nee polit­i­cal activism exists in the con­text of numer­ous her­itage-based projects and busi­ness­es. Our work is spir­it-led and comes from our land-based life­ways,” says trib­al mem­ber Rachel Fer­nan­dez. For a cen­tu­ry and a half, the tribe has used tra­di­tion­al prin­ci­ples to har­vest wood sus­tain­ably and prof­itably. The 145-year-old con­ser­va­tion group Amer­i­can Forests calls the Menom­i­nee wood­land one of the most his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant work­ing forests in the world.”

Menikanaehkem brings the same time-hon­ored prin­ci­pals to bear in its oth­er projects. Among them are food sov­er­eign­ty and women’s lead­er­ship and empow­er­ment, includ­ing mid­wifery and tra­di­tion­al birthing prac­tices. The group’s solar-pow­ered tiny homes” shel­ter those who need time and space dur­ing life transitions. 

Fer­nan­dez believes that get­ting the next gen­er­a­tion of Menom­i­nee lead­ers inter­est­ed in elec­tions is also impor­tant and func­tions as part of prepar­ing young­sters to car­ry their tra­di­tions into the future. In these try­ing times,” she says, we need to reflect on who we are, who our ances­tors were and what they endured to ensure that we are here. In this way, we can …pre­pare for our descen­dants’ lives. We must be that good ances­tor for them. When you stand in your truth, it sus­tains you.”

Despite the tur­moil this year, Menom­i­nees are unde­terred, Reit­er says. His peo­ple have sur­vived oth­er crises, even oth­er pan­demics, even geno­cide. That is a hel­lu­va strength,” he says. We got this.

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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