Native American voters could decide key senate races while battling intense voter suppression

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have pledged to recognize the tribe, if elected.

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

Native American voters could sway key Senate races in next week’s election in Montana, North Carolina, Arizona and Maine. Investigative journalist Jenni Monet says that for many tribal citizens, the contest is not just about Democrats and Republicans. These voters “support those who understand their sovereignty,” says Monet, who writes the newsletter “Indigenously.” She is a tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to look at how Native American voters could sway key Senate races in next week’s election in Montana, North Carolina, Arizona and Maine, and how the presidential candidates are courting the Native vote. In North Carolina, the Lumbee Tribe could hold significant influence on the Senate showdown between Republican incumbent Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham. The Lumbees, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, could also prove to be a key vote in the presidential race. The Lumbee Tribe is one of two tribes in North Carolina, but it lacks federal recognition. Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have pledged to recognize the tribe, if elected. On Saturday, Trump campaigned in Lumberton, North Carolina.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: With us today are members of the incredible Lumbee Tribe, which has been wrongly denied federal recognition for more than a century. … When I’m reelected, I will probably sign the Lumbee Recognition Act. It should have been signed a long time ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Another state to watch is Montana, where Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Steve Daines is running against the state’s governor, Steve Bullock. Native voters make up 7% of Montana’s electorate.

Well, for more on these races, voter suppression in Indian Country, and the record number of Native candidates running for office, from local to national races, we go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we’re joined by investigative journalist Jenni Monet, founder of the newsletter Indigenously: Decolonizing Your Newsfeed and a tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, her recent piece for Medium headlined “The Native Voters Who Could Decide Control of the Senate.”

Jenni Monet, welcome back to Democracy Now! You write in your piece, “Across Indian Country, Native voters have been known to pack a powerful punch at the polls in some of the narrowest political victories — and not with any particular party loyalty. For tribal citizens, elections aren’t determined by values that run red or blue, but rather those that run sovereign.” Explain what you mean, and go through the races that you are watching most closely, Jenni.

JENNI MONET: Well, I made that statement only in that we know, in certain key states with large Native American, Alaska Native populations, that voters support those who understand their sovereignty, who understand their very unique needs. And I think one most obvious example of that is in Alaska. We saw in 2010 an extraordinary and unprecedented show at the polls, where Senator Lisa Murkowski was forced into a write-in candidacy. And to this day, it’s largely credited that it was Alaska Natives who mobilized to give her those write-in votes that she needed, also with some of the Alaska Native corporation financial support in terms of supporting that campaign.

Likewise, what we’re seeing now here in Indian Country, you’re seeing in Montana, in particular, a race that I’m closely watching, a mobilization of Native voters there, whereas many as five Native Indigenous-led organizations have vowed to unseat Senator Daines and support Governor Bullock for that position. And it really comes down to, I think, a disappointment among Native voters in Montana, who, as you said, represent the largest minority in the state, 7%, to which some of the decisions that Daines made really struck hard on daily life for Indian Country. One editorial in the Billings Gazette was by a Crow tribal citizen who still hasn’t forgotten Daines’ support of the government shutdown in 2013 and how that impacted daily tribal life for citizens there.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the concerns there, overall, and when you talk about the idea that Native Americans could determine the balance of the Senate, not just any particular race.

JENNI MONET: So, we understand that the Native American voter population is small; however, it is significant. Another key, significant race happened in South Dakota in the early aughts, where a Democratic senator had been in the closest race, and it wasn’t until votes were tallied from the Oglala Nation, of around 500 votes tallied, that he squeaked by in a narrow election. We saw that also in North Dakota with Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s win in 2012.

And so, when we’re looking at the significance of the Native vote in 2020, in terms of looking at these very critical battleground states to flip the Senate, I wrote about four key races where Native voter populations are small but significant, including Montana, but also North Carolina, where we are seeing two presidential candidates for the first time really courting Native voters in a very public way and dangling sovereignty out for everyone to see. And I think it’s just an extraordinary — it will be an extraordinary race to watch, because Robeson County, home of the Lumbee Tribe, has been a swing vote in the last 2016 election. They represent 40% of the population in Robeson County and voted roughly 5% of the vote, which carried Trump in that county. And so, now when they have prospects of two presidential candidates both promising their sovereignty to full force, it will be very interesting to see how that might shake out. I don’t know if you noticed this, but Trump was scheduled to return back to North Carolina just yesterday and was postponing that trip due to windy weather. But it’s slated that he will make his last — one of his last campaign speeches back in Lumbee country, in Columbus County, on Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jenni Monet, can you talk about the Senate race in Maine, where you have the incumbent senator, the Republican Susan Collins, who is facing a very stiff challenge from Sara Gideon, and the role of Native voters in Maine?

JENNI MONET: Right. There’s some are saying that this is Susan Collins’ fight — you know, the fight of her life. And Sara Gideon, who is also speaker of the Maine Legislature, she last year came out in rare support for the four Indigenous tribes that are based in Maine.

And the backstory is one that has languished in Maine for the last 40 years, dealing with a land settlement that has really just carried a lot of animosity between tribal-state relations, and it’s just never been resolved. In fact, it’s exacerbated a lot of problems. And in Maine, it’s one of the states where tribes themselves are trying to exercise their full sovereignty under a lot of grip from the state.

And Sara Gideon understands that and has actually seen the Maine tribes in a way that, you know, Maine, which is one of the whitest states, if not the whitest state, in America, has refused to really acknowledge tribes and their sovereignty. And so, even though voters in Maine represent barely 1% of the voting population, if this race should be close, as the polls suggest it is, it might be one of those close ties where the Native vote could be very significant.

AMY GOODMAN: Jenni, let’s talk also about Native candidates all over the country, a record number of people running, and also what it means to vote or to hold these elections during COVID, because Native Americans are among, among the Latinx and African Americans, the hardest hit by this virus.

JENNI MONET: Amy, there have been at least — what we know — at least five lawsuits this year alone around voter suppression rights — stomping out voter suppression and upholding voting rights for Native Americans. And all but one have really successfully been in favor of tribes. In Montana, actually, they were trying to challenge a collection ballot that was actually a provision in their 2018 midterms. And what we saw in Arizona, there were two cases, actually. One was a mail-in referendum, to which a plaintiff was trying to extend the delivery status of that, and that got overturned. And then another happened in Pima County, where an early voting precinct on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation got shut down. And what we’re talking about are measures that are so vital, predating the pandemic, but in a pandemic, where people’s safety and lives are at stake, particularly in some of the hardest-hit communities for the coronavirus. And here, if there ever was a time for these measures to be in place, it would be now. And they’re being struck down, time after time.

And one, you talk about the historic candidates running. Sure, they’re running in big races right now, but I find — what I find very fascinating and intriguing is that it’s also these little races that are going to pack a huge punch, particularly in Pima County, where that early voting precinct closed, where you have a young woman, Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, who is running for the county recorder position. And, come on, how often are we really paying attention to county recorder positions? But in this case, where you have had extreme voter suppression, where felons are arrested and incarcerated and overrepresented in the state’s prisons more than any other group, here you have an informed Indigenous woman who has seen this kind of disparity on the ground for years, and when she saw the county recorder, who’s been in that position for almost three decades, she jumped at the opportunity to step in and start really reforming some of this systemic racism that’s been in these organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: And speaking about those kinds of very local races, similarly, in South Dakota, the Public Utilities Commission, Remi Bald Eagle running. And I should say, Jenni, that you were arrested in North Dakota covering the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, as well.

JENNI MONET: As were you, Amy. And yeah, you know, this week, we were reminded of a very dear anniversary from the No DAPL protest, where, on October 27th, we saw the militarized police raid taking over one of the encampments that were in the path of the pipeline. And so it’s very top of mind for Indian Country right now, what is driving people to the polls.

And for South Dakota, you know, another small race is for a seat for the Public Utilities Commission, where Remi Bald Eagle of the Cheyenne River Sioux, who was an organizer, as well, in the No DAPL protests, he is now running for one of those seats, which only open up every six years. And a big part of his campaign is that he’s advocating for the land, a plaintiff that he says doesn’t have a voice, and so it’s up to us to do that. And as you know, these public utility commissions in the Dakotas determine the permitting for pipeline projects and other infrastructure projects that deal with, you know, natural resource extraction projects throughout and around tribal lands, and so it’s very important to the tribal citizenry up there.

AMY GOODMAN: The Dakotas are among the worst hit by the COVID virus right now, in the red zone.


AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the lack of data on Native voters, can you end there, Jenni?

JENNI MONET: Yeah. I think what’s so fascinating right now is that there’s this notion that Native voters have been somewhat apathetic at the polls. And I think that that is a distortion of the data.

We found out, in our coverage so far, that the midterm 2018 elections had a robust display of various ethnic groups that showed up at the polls. And when we talked with the census takers, they told us that Native Americans weren’t documented in the data because we were too small of a group to count. And that happens quite often. We saw that happen with missing and murdered Indigenous women. We see that happen with health statistics, and on and on. There’s a thing called “Asterisk Nation” for the data crisis that we’re in.

And so, I actually applaud some of the Native organizations in Indian Country right now who are kind of riding a very data sovereignty movement right now. Just this week, there was a report released by two nonprofit organizations, IllumiNative and Native Organizers Alliance, and they polled around 6,400 people and found that 77% of the roughly 6,400 people participated in the last election. And I don’t see that as apathetic at all. And so, I think that this narrative of somehow Natives are chronically not showing up at the polls is false. And I hope that this 2020 election can shine some light on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jenni Monet, I want to thank you for being with us, investigative journalist, founder of the newsletter Indigenously: Decolonizing Your Newsfeed. Jenni is a tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, speaking to us from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Coming up, Jesse Wegman on, well, his new book, Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College. Stay with us.


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