Editor’s Note: Allie Young is a citizen of the Diné (Navajo) Nation and founder of Protect the Sacred. She is a storyteller and activist on a mission to increase the authentic representation of Native Americans in TV, film and mainstream media. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last fall, in anticipation of a monumental presidential election, I organized the Ride to the Polls campaign, which led Diné voters on horseback to polling places to cast their votes in Arizona. We rode over 20 miles on horseback to honor our ancestors who did not have cars but still rode for miles and hours just to vote. By communicating this history and reminding our young people of these stories, we hoped they’d be motivated to protect the sacred – our languages, cultures and lands that are impacted by policies and federal resources – with their votes.
To many, Arizona is simply the home of the Grand Canyon and conservative White retirees. But those with closer ties know it’s also home to 22 federally recognized Native tribes and a growing Latinx population. And, in 2020, Native and Latinx communities showed up to vote in large numbers – many of us casting our ballots for President Joe Biden and Sen. Mark Kelly, both Democrats.
The Republican-controlled state legislature did not take kindly to the electoral choices of Native voters like me. In the first three months of the year, conservative legislators have introduced over 20 bills to curtail minority voting rights – aiming to make early voting and voting by mail harder, banning the possibility of same-day voter registration and adding unnecessary voter ID restrictions.
The bills, if passed, would undoubtedly suppress the votes of Arizona’s Native American constituents. But voters like me, who lead campaigns to get Natives to the polls, will continue to use our influence to campaign against this harmful legislation. We will rise up with other underrepresented and suppressed groups to ensure we have access to the ballot and our votes are counted.
Now let me break down why these bills are so problematic. Many tribal citizens live on reservations and in remote communities far from polling places and post offices. It’s already difficult for Native voters to get to the polls on Election Day – but options like early voting and vote by mail provided us with more opportunity to cast our votes and overcome some of these logistical hurdles.
In addition, some of the bills aimed at early voting would shorten the time to get and return or fix a postmarked ballot. This is particularly problematic on reservations, where many people do not have mail service and must travel to both drop off and receive their ballots.
Worse yet, on Tuesday, Gov. Doug Ducey signed one of these voter restrictions bills into law. Under SB1485, thousands of voters – including potentially many tribal elders – who have not participated in the last four elections, including primaries, and do not respond to a final notice could be deemed inactive. Once inactive, they risk being removed from early voting lists, which allows a voter to automatically receive a ballot by mail for every election.
Since internet access is quite limited on reservations to begin with, for those willing to make the trek to the polling station, passing a recently introduced bill allowing same-day voter registration could have been a crucial step in getting them registered in the system. Now, that possible option, too, is at risk of being entirely eliminated.
Impeding voting rights – particularly those of the Native American community – is nothing new. Until 1948, Native Americans were not guaranteed the right to vote in Arizona. And even when we were allowed to cast our ballots, we faced a barrage of voter suppression tactics – including literacy tests and intimidation – designed to keep us from the polls.
But it’s not 1948 anymore, and as a Native activist, I recognize the importance of my people’s voting rights. The impetus for our Ride to the Polls campaign was a response to the insufficient number of ballot drop boxes, early voting and Election Day polling places, and very limited hours of operation across the Navajo Nation – the largest reservation in the United States spanning 25,000 square miles.
We had to pay attention to timing during our rides since the early polling place in Kayenta – one of the bigger towns in the Navajo Nation – was only open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. This early polling location was also only operational from October 7, the first day of early voting in Arizona, to October 20. However, the last day of early voting in Arizona was October 30, which means the Kayenta location closed a full 10 days before the early voting period ended.
Still, despite these barriers, we organized. We were not going to let any of these obstacles stop us from exercising our right to vote.
As a result of our campaign and many others across other tribal nations in Arizona, Native Americans showed up in large numbers. In Navajo County, for example, where the other riders and I voted, there was a 74% voter turnout, up 10% from the 2016 presidential election.
The vast majority – about 75% – of Arizona Native voters cast their ballots for Biden, according to an analysis by the Arizona Republic, contributing to the historic Arizona flip from red to blue by less than 11,000 votes. In showing up to the polls in honor of our ancestors, we showed the rest of the country that we are powerful in numbers, especially when we come together as a community to fight for our rights.
This clearly intimidates the Arizona Republican Party – and is a driver of their voter suppression efforts now. But we will not give up. We will build on the momentum of the 2020 presidential election, and we will fight for our electoral rights.
In my new role at Harness, a non-profit organization that aims to elevate the voices of underrepresented and misrepresented communities, I will continue to lead the work I started with the Ride to the Polls campaign – aiming to educate the public about these racially discriminatory tactics being pushed to obstruct democracy. We are planning virtual artist salons to gather allies, influencers, artists and organizers to strategize with Indigenous communities, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and Black communities on how we can support communities of colors and fight racism and White supremacy as a collective.
And we do not have a moment to waste. Some prominent conservative voices, including former Sen. Rick Santorum, a CNN political commentator, who recently presented a whitewashed narrative of US history to Young America’s Foundation, reinforce racist rhetoric that perpetuates the erasure of Native Americans and other marginalized communities. Though Santorum claimed he “misspoke,” there are many others who continue to espouse the exact kind of rhetoric that dehumanizes and disregards our communities – and that has historically been used to justify the use of voter suppression methods.
In the 2020 election, we showed up in our respective communities, proving that community organizing works. In light of the GOP’s efforts to ensure we don’t activate like that again, our communities of color must come together and lean into collective organizing. If it comes to rallying our people, I’m ready to show up at any marches Stacey Abrams or Nse Ufot may plan, and I invite Stacey and Nse to come saddle up and ride horseback with Native American voters like me in Arizona.