SANTA FE – Derrick Lente wanted to campaign this spring.
Instead the Democratic legislator – whose district includes pueblos and other tribal lands – was fielding pleas for doctors and medical equipment as coronavirus tore through New Mexico’s tribal communities.
The disease would kill a disproportionate share of Native Americans, including in the months preceding the June 2 primary election.
“I was just as scared as anybody else,” Lente said in a interview. “The way it hit many of our areas, it definitely left us scarred.”
A new report by Common Cause New Mexico outlines the damage to Native American turnout in the June 2 election. It found that turnout in Native American precincts fell by 1 percentage point in the 2020 primary election, compared with four years earlier, even as voter participation surged by 8 points throughout the state as a whole.
In some precincts, the report said, turnout plunged as much as 29%.
Potential explanations include travel restrictions in tribal areas, a reduction in polling places, and too little public information about the changes, according to the report and Journal interviews with its author and state officials.
“Folks couldn’t jump in the car together and go to the polling location they’re used to,” said Amber Carrillo, a member of Laguna Pueblo and co-author of the nonpartisan Common Cause report.
In some cases, she said, voting locations were moved from a central location to the edge of pueblo or tribal land.
In others, a polling place was closed or moved outside tribal lands altogether because of travel restrictions. The curfews and other restrictions came as tribal and health officials tried to limit the transmission of the disease.
“Without anybody intending, the result was a disenfranchisement – frankly a systemic disenfranchisement – of voters on Native American land,” said state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat and lawyer who works for the state’s county clerks.
On Election Day in the primary, seven pueblos and a Navajo Nation chapter didn’t have a polling location on tribal land, according to state election officials, though members either had an alternative voting location available or could visit any other polling place in the county.
A new state law aims to protect tribal voting locations.
Senate Bill 4, co-sponsored by Ivey-Soto, prohibits closing a polling place on tribal land without the tribe’s consent. It also calls for at least one voting location to be on tribal land if travel in and out of the area is shut down for public health concerns.
The new law also makes clear that the voting location can remain open even if it’s inaccessible to voters from other parts of the county. The changes – passed in a special session in June – are in effect only for this year’s general election.
“Under the circumstances,” Ivey-Soto said, “I think it provides the needed protections.”
Gabriel Sanchez, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and co-founder of the UNM Native American Budget and Policy Institute, said the extra barriers facing Native American voters in the 2020 primary election weren’t unique to New Mexico. But they have an outsized impact in the state, he said, because Native Americans make up roughly 10% of the population eligible to vote.
It’s one of the highest percentages in the country.
Sanchez said turnout in Native American precincts may not rebound entirely in the fall, even with the changes to the election law. Native voters, he said, are less likely to vote by mail – an option that exploded in popularity this year as voters sought ways to cast a ballot without the risk of in-person voting.
Today, Native Americans make up 32% of New Mexico’s coronavirus cases, a percentage roughly three times higher than their share of the overall population.
“I still would expect a bit of suppressed turnout for Native Americans,” Sanchez said, “because of the cloud of COVID.”
Rep. Lente of Sandia Pueblo said geographic and cultural factors may be at play, too. Some Navajo Nation chapters, he said, are 15 to 30 miles from the nearest town, where residents get their mail.
“For a lot of the Navajo Nation folks,” Lente said, “Election Day and voting is a social function. For many of them, this was quite uncommon to have to vote via absentee.”
Carrillo, Native American voting rights organizer for Common Cause New Mexico, said it’s critical that election officials and others launch a public information campaign explaining where to vote in person and how to request and return an absentee ballot.
Election officials, she said, should keep in mind that some tribal communities may have limited internet service, making telephone hotlines or other methods of communication more important. Voting information will also have to take into account languages other than English.
“Not all of our languages are written languages,” Carrillo said. “That’s really important.”
She also suggests establishing ballot drop boxes in central locations, so voters can return their absentee ballots without having to travel to a post office.
Lente, for his part, said he expects Native American turnout to bounce back after months of staying home to limit the spread of COVID-19. The presidential contest, in particular, will drive interest in the Nov. 3 election, he said.
“A lot of people have watched television for hours a day at home,” Lente said. “They’re going to want to cast their ballots.”