The first political campaign I volunteered for was the 2002 race of former South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. Seeing the potential of our own communities to be able to determine their own political future, I wanted to help any way I could. That election underscored just how significant the Native vote can be. With most of the reservation voters in South Dakota choosing Johnson, he won by a mere 528 votes.
When Native communities go to the ballot box, we can make a difference in local, state, and national politics. Recent history shows this and makes a compelling argument for political investment in organizing Native communities for the upcoming 2020 election and beyond.
In 2004, then-Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle received record support from Native communities in South Dakota. Two years later, Native voters pushed Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to a close victory, with members of the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Fort Belknap and Tribal nations choosing him in large numbers. Former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken spent his last campaign weekends on several Minnesota reservations at the suggestion of now-Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (Anishinaabe), who served as a liaison to the state’s tribes for his campaign. Referring to Franken’s slim 312-vote win over incumbent opponent Sen. Norm Coleman, she said, “I’ll tell Al those 312 people are Native American.”
In 2010, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski triumphed as a write-in U.S. Senate candidate thanks to the Alaskan Native vote. Get-out-the-vote efforts targeting Native communities helped lift North Dakota U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to victory in 2012. Ballot measures raising Alaska and South Dakota’s minimum wage were passed with the support of Native voters. In 2016, increased polling sites within Nevada tribal nations helped the state elect the first Latina U.S. senator, Catherine Cortez Masto. The power of Native voters extends to getting our own people elected too: The 2018 midterms brought Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas to Congress, and Flanagan became the highest-ranking elected executive Native American woman in the history of the U.S.
Last fall, I attended the First Nations Voting Rights Conference, sponsored by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, Rural Utah Project, and others. There, I met Native voting rights advocates from around the nation. We shared different strategies for the upcoming elections and examined the challenges that will impact voters living on reservations. Among those challenges is redistricting, which reallocates congressional seats and state legislative seats based on population and partisan political shifts. Navajo voters living in San Juan County, Utah, only recently have been granted the opportunity to have fuller representation on their county commission because of a successful lawsuit alleging racial gerrymandering. The residents were able to elect two of three county commissioners who are enrolled tribal members but are still facing challenges from non-Natives living in this district about the legitimacy of their ideas.
Redistricting and voter suppression that disenfranchise and dilute the power of voters from communities of color mean that every vote matters even more. So, despite the small size of many Native nations when compared to the overall population—which make up 2% of the U.S. population—we have to pay attention to their votes, particularly in states that have close Senate races. Among these states with the highest Native populations, seven of the senators from Alaska, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Washington requested to serve on the Committee for Indian Affairs. This is significant because political parties are recognizing the power of the Native vote either by working with Native voters, or—if they see Native voters as a threat to their hold on power—finding ways to dilute their impact with the introduction of voter ID requirements in states such as North Dakota.
There are seven key swing states that are needed for Democrats to win the presidency and the U.S. Senate in 2020, including Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado, and Wisconsin. In each of those states, the margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election was within 1-2%—close enough for the current Native American voting population to make all the difference. Take a look at the numbers:
Arizona : The margin of victory was 84,904 votes. There are 309,000 Native Americans eligible to vote.
Colorado: The margin of victory was 71,741 votes. There are 112,000 Native Americans eligible to vote.
Michigan: The margin of victory was 11,612 votes. There are approximately 146,000 Native Americans in the state.*
Minnesota: The margin of victory was 43,785 votes. There are 78,000 Native Americans eligible to vote.
Nevada: The margin of victory was 26,434 votes. There are 60,000 Native Americans eligible to vote.
North Carolina: The margin of victory was 177,529 votes. There are approximately 205,000 Native Americans in the state.*
Wisconsin: The margin of victory was 27,257 votes. There are 90,000 Native Americans in the state.*
(*Data specific to the population of eligible Native American voters was unavailable.)
Native communities can be critical in races with these razor-thin margins. Imagine if a presidential campaign was to invest in Native turnout in any of these states. The future of our democracy might look very different.
Kevin Killer is the co-founder of Advanced Native Political Leadership, a former member of the South Dakota state legislature, and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow him on Twitter @kevinck04.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.