Indianz.Com > News > Indigenously: The realities of the Native vote
Supporters of Democratic president-elect Joe Biden rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 2, 2020. Photo: Diné 4 Biden
The Native Vote Is Not Code for “Navajo”
Among Arizona’s Indigenous electorate, the biggest support for Joe Biden came from a county no one’s talking about.
Monday, November 23, 2020

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For Native voters, this election year has dealt us one disappointing data dilemma after another.

It began weeks leading up to Election Day when journalists casually cast us off as a “low voter turnout” population but with little modern evidence to support these claims. On Election Night, we were quickly othered into a “Something Else” category with nearly zero attention paid to the small but significant impact Native voters, everywhere, have had in past elections.

And now, in an attempt to seemingly correct these disparities, the headlines read one thing — “Native Voters” — while the content is overwhelmingly fixated on another: the Navajo Nation.

The Arizona Indigenous electorate, overall, should be recognized for helping flip Arizona from red to blueish this historic election year — only the second time in 68 years the state has favored a Democratic president. It’s emblematic of the small but significant swing vote that Natives have represented this year and in the past.

This election cycle, Arizona was one of the last states to be called by a majority of news outlets, despite early announcements made on Election Night from the Associated Press and Fox News, both declaring Biden the winner. Most newsrooms waited longer than a week — late Thursday, November 12 — to make the call.

In that holding pattern, a tribal newspaper, a Native professor, a former presidential hopeful, and a Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton were among those eager to frame demographic analysis of Arizona’s voter turnout in ways that inflated Native American support for Biden — 97 percent — and with particular credit to Navajo voters. The data discrepancy that went wildly viral was ultimately fact-checked by USA Today.

It turns out, among Arizona’s Indigenous electorate, the biggest support for Biden didn’t come from the Navajo Nation, but from a county no one is talking about — Pima County. Few if any journalists have written about Native voters from the other 21 federally recognized tribes in the state.

Indigenously has been examining Native voter turnout across Arizona’s 15 counties with a concentrated focus on the dozens of reservation-based precincts, including the Navajo Nation.

Here are a few key takeaways from our datasets:

• In five of the most heavily populated counties for Native Americans in Arizona — Apache, Navajo, Coconino, Pinal, and Pima counties — approximately 84-thousand registered Native voters cast ballots in 70 reservation-based precincts with an average of 55 percent choosing Biden.

• The strongest support for Biden, per capita, came from the little-discussed Tohono O’odham Nation in Pima County where voters allege their sacred sites were destroyed by border wall construction, earlier this year. A total of 3,085 votes cast across nine of the reservation’s precincts resulted in 88.6 percent of the vote for Biden.

• Similarly, Native voters in Pinal County, south of Phoenix, outpaced Navajo voters where a total of 2,548 ballots were cast from the Gila River Indian Community, the Ak Chin Indian Community, and the northern tip of the Tohono O’odham Nation — all overwhelmingly in favor of Biden: 86.3 percent. (A portion of a fourth tribal community in the county, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, voted in a separate county.) Below, maps show the stark representation of Native voters — the blue sections reflect precincts on tribal lands, the red ones are non-reservation precincts.

• Arizona’s largest Indigenous electorate — Navajo voters — cast an estimated 54-thousand reservation-based ballots, to which an average 80 percent of their votes went for Biden. Apache County threw the largest support for the President-Elect, roughly 21,000 votes or 82.3 percent of the total vote count.

• Native voter turnout in Arizona was up by an average five percent across all precincts. But the widely overlooked Hopi Tribe in Coconino County made the biggest leap, nearly doubling representation at the polls from 37 percent in 2016 to roughly 60 percent this election cycle.

It’s worth mentioning that Native American voters obviously live in urban cities, too, including in the battleground Maricopa County, home to Phoenix. Considered one of the largest Native urban populations in America, the Indigenous electorate represented an estimated 82-thousand people of voting age this election cycle, or roughly three percent of the county’s eligible voting population. However, as one organizer mentioned recently in the Santa Fe Reporter, unlike reservation-based precincts, tracking the urban Native vote is next to impossible. Only four states in the country — Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina — record voter registration by race, perhaps a dynamic that should change.

What’s not impossible is tracking Native voter turnout by reservations which makes it truly startling to realize how such reporting has not really happened before following an election cycle — also something that should change. While reservation-based election data is an imperfect representation of the overall Indigenous electorate (roughly 70 percent of Natives live in cities and towns), it casts a credible light on voting trends that otherwise have been invisible.

So, while the Native Vote isn’t code for “Navajo,” nor is it limited to Arizona’s Indigenous electorate. From Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Montana, it’s good to see the power of the small but significant Native Vote across Indian Country finally get the overdue respect and attention it deserves.

Election SOS Fellows Miacel Spotted Elk and Tsanavi Spoonhunter contributed to this article.

Jenni Monet is a journalist and tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. She reports on Indigenous rights and injustice in the U.S. and the world. This article originally appeared independently at Indigenously.