electionlineWeekly on New Mexico’s Native American Voting Task Force

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The latest electionlineWeekly looks at New Mexico’s efforts to improve participation and elections in an often-overlooked community: Native Americans. Mindy Moretti has the story:

Tiffany Blackbull lives and works on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. She also votes on the Navajo Nation at the local school, which is about 20 miles from the ranch where she lives with her husband, teenage daughters and a passel of animals.

“My assigned polling place is about 20 miles from the ranch, which is ‘just over the hill’ out here,” Blackbull said. “When voting occurs, it’s not really very busy. It’s an interesting dynamic out here. For the state and federal elections, there’s usually a lackluster turnout on the reservation, however for the local elections — Navajo chapter positions, Navajo presidential election — the turnout is significantly higher.”

In the 2016 General Election, the overall voter turnout in New Mexico was 62 percent. In predominantly Native American precincts, the turnout was 56 percent.

The Navajo Nation encompasses about 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. In New Mexico, nearly 66,000 residents live on Navajo lands. In all, about 10.6 percent of New Mexico’s population is Native American and represents 23 different tribes.

Hoping to boost Native American participation in state and federal elections, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has convened the Native American Voting Task Force.

The task force is made up of representatives from pueblos and tribal communities across New Mexico, including one representative living in an urban area. The task force will be charged with identifying ways to boost voter registration, education and election participation in tribal communities, and will make recommendations to Toulouse Oliver and other elected officials.

The task force recently held its first meeting, one that Toulouse Oliver dubbed a “great start.”

“Task Force members got off to a great start this morning and began laying the foundation for what they want to accomplish moving forward,” Toulouse Oliver said in a statement. “With the next general election only a year away, it’s important that we work together to develop policies and procedures that will increase voter participation and education in our tribal communities. I am confident that this talented group of individuals will find new and creative ways to engage a greater number of Native Americans in the electoral process.”

Joey Keefe, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, said Toulouse Oliver decided to begin with this task force because of the historical barriers to voting for Native Americans. Native Americans did not get the right to vote until 1948 and New Mexico is still lacking in the areas of voter registration, voter education, and election participation in tribal communities – perhaps more so than in any other demographic group.

“It’s tricky to explain, but the way of life on the reservation creates a disconnect with state and federal elections,” Blackbull explained. “Navajo people — on the reservation — are more concerned with their own tribal government, what happens in DC is really “just the second coming of the same old Calvary”. As a native person, the feeling is their rights and needs and their vote doesn’t count for much.”

According to Keefe, Toulouse Oliver would like to see the work of the task force result in an improved voting culture in our tribes and pueblos so the state can close the gap in civic engagement between these communities and the rest of the public.

The frequency of the task force meetings will be up to its members but its second meeting will be November 29 which coincides with the final meeting of the Interim Indian Affairs Committee before the 2018 legislative session begins in January.

While the secretary of state’s office isn’t under any legal obligation to carry out the recommendations of the task force, Keefe said Toulouse Oliver fully intends to continue soliciting recommendations and suggestions from task force members and incorporate as many as is possible into the state’s voting plan.

Blackbull is optimistic about the work of the task force, but is also realistic about the task it faces.

“As for what would make voting easier, it’s pretty easy already,” Blackbull said. “What needs to happen is a paradigm shift. People on the Rez need to feel empowered about the importance of their vote in state and federal elections.”

Thanks to Mindy for sharing this story … This is an important effort in the Land of Enchantment; the “disconnect” Native Americans feel regarding American elections is significant – and there are often logistical challenges (distance, language, etc.) to running elections in tribal jurisdictions. Kudos to SoS Toulouse Oliver and the Task Force for this work; here’s hoping it results in meaningful changes in the Native American voting experience and turnout. Stay tuned …

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