The Show on KJZZ

Listen live weekdays at 9 a.m.

Native American voters key to swing states like Arizona going into 2024 election

By Ximena Bustillo/NPR
Published: Monday, November 27, 2023 - 10:35am

A vote center at El Mirage City Hall
Chelsey Heath/KJZZ
A vote center at El Mirage City Hall on Nov. 7, 2023.

Grassroots efforts to get Native American voters to turn in their ballots for the 2024 election are in motion across swing states as Democrats and Republicans are both vying for power.

There are predicted to be at least 5 million Native and Alaska Native-identifying voters in the U.S. in both rural and urban communities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — although estimates are expected to be an undercount.

"Native Americans are incredibly influential and have the ability to really swing those elections on the margins," said Jacqueline De León, a senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, adding that she sees the potential for Native voters to decide elections where the population of Native Americans is bigger than the vote differentials that decide those races.

There are some challenges ahead. Native voting activists have filed several lawsuits, aimed at challenging laws and efforts that would limit access to voting for Indigenous people, De León said. These include laws that limit poll availability, identification card barriers, and issues with mail-in ballots on reservations.

Hanging in the balance is control of House, Senate and the Oval Office in 2024. In a country in which turnout can make or break campaigns, organizers said courting Native voters can dictate a candidate's success.

'Both political parties have been really negligent'

Organizers argue Native voters are increasingly a coalition to watch, even if parties have not fully recognized them yet.

"Both political parties have been really negligent when it comes to the Native American vote," De León said. "Often there is an unfamiliarity. There's a fear of approaching Native communities that may seem unapproachable or there's uncertainty over how to approach Native communities. And so there just hasn't been an investment."

Those who have been successful, advocates said, are those who use traditional organizing and voter mobilization tactics, especially among the rural Native coalitions.

"Rural America broadly, but especially rural Indian country, still operates on very importantly, on relationships, on handshakes. ... And that's that's how voters gain confidence, either in an individual running or a ballot initiative or any sort of change to policy or election requires that kind of investment in it," said Ta'jin Perez, deputy director for Western Native Voice. "It takes energy, it takes time, it takes funding resources. But it's worth it, frankly."

Key to Biden, Hobbs wins

There are 22 federally recognized Native nations within Arizona's state borders. The U.S. Census estimates that more than 6% of the state's population identifies as American Indian or Alaska Native.

In a swing state, like Arizona, where only a few thousand votes can make the difference, voting advocates say political parties need to recognize Native voters' power.

"American Indian voters have arguably been the deciding factor in recent elections," said Alexander Castillo-Nunez, civic engagement coordinator at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. But he said some challenges still persist.

Voter turnout on tribal lands in Arizona helped Biden secure a win in 2020, the first Democrat to win the state in more than two decades. Native Americans also turned out in large numbers during the 2022 midterms, according to Castillo-Nunez, helping Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs secure a win.

Polling locations can be up to 100 miles round trip for some voters, there are language barriers to overcome and organizers want to ensure poll workers are trained to recognize tribal identification cards. While he said some Native voters in Arizona tend to lean Democrat, many register later as independent and most want to see follow through from elected officials beyond the campaign trail.

More stories from KJZZ

Politics Elections Native American Affairs