By 5:30 a.m. on Election Day, Carol Davis (Navajo) was set up at her polling site in Dilkon, Ariz., as an observer for the Democratic Party. As the coordinator and director of the Navajo environmental advocacy group Diné C.A.R.E. worked at the polls — a tradition she began as an 18-year-old — her 20-year-old children distributed sack lunches and water to voters waiting in line.
About an hour and 20 minutes west of there, Raina Roanhorse (Navajo), a Native American outreach specialist at the Arizona voter engagement organization Instituto, waited in line at her local chapter house in Wide Ruins, Ariz., to vote in tribal elections. Like many of her fellow organizers, she’d voted by mail in the general election weeks earlier.
And in the seat of the Navajo Nation — Window Rock, Ariz. — Jaynie Parrish (Navajo), a director with the Navajo County Democratic Party, coordinated volunteers getting out the vote.
During election week, the traditionally red state of Arizona shocked the nation. President-elect Joe Biden achieved and maintained a narrow lead as ballots were counted, and this week, on Thursday, Biden won Arizona’s 11 electoral votes by slightly more than 11,000 votes, according to Edison Research. He appears to have won big with the state’s Indigenous population.
Arizona is home to 22 Native American tribes spread across 20 reservations and a large urban Indian population located in Maricopa County. On Navajo Nation, 97 percent of votes have gone to Biden. Further south, on the Tohono O’odham Nation, Biden received 90 percent of votes. Elsewhere, between 70 to 90 percent of Indigenous votes have clocked in for Biden.
Local Indigenous organizers like Davis, Roanhorse and Parrish were key to getting out the vote across the state — bridging the distance between the communities they know well and the polls.
With Navajo Nation hit especially hard by the coronavirus this year, organizers had to get creative with their strategies as they registered people to vote and helped them get to the polls.
At nonpartisan Diné C.A.R.E., Davis and her team launched a phone line that people could text for voting support.
“Then we would go back and contact them, find out if they needed a ride, if they knew family members needed a ride, if they needed to find out where their polling sites were and if there was anything we could do to help them get their ballot cast,” Davis said.
In September alone, Davis estimates that her small team helped 300 voters.
Diné C.A.R.E. also invested in campaigns on social media, satellite television and radio that could be accessed across the reservation — placing a special emphasis on Navajo-language programming.
At the Navajo County Democratic Party, Parrish and her fellow organizers started out the year scrambling to help their community as it was hit by the pandemic, distributing food and water across the reservation. When they were able to switch gears to voter turnout, it was clear that they’d have to get creative to reach voters amid stay-at-home orders. They started registering voters in line for drive-through coronavirus testing. Later, as the high case counts eased, they began setting up registration tables at grocery stores and helping voters fill out registration forms from the other side of their front door.
Davis said she could tell something was different from previous years from the interactions she had with voters.
“One of the times when we were in a remote area in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road registering people, I had a lot of elders asking a lot of questions about the whole process and their questions indicated to me that they were really first-time voters,” she said. “They knew that something was wrong and they knew that it was so important for them to vote.”
Parrish saw older voters coming out in surprisingly large numbers, despite the health risk, as well as young voters energized by national conversations about racism.
As a result of the pandemic, Parrish said local organizing was more important than ever. With lockdowns on the Hopi Reservation, voters were even harder to reach.
“You have to have a strong local program to know the language, know the intricacies, the strategies, the community, the highways, the houses, the neighborhood, all of that — and the people,” Parrish said.
With the pandemic ongoing, Parrish didn’t want to see volunteers coming into communities and spreading the virus. They could, however, offer financial support so that local organizations could pay volunteers and expand Internet access.
OJ Semans (Sicangu Oyate) of the national organization Four Directions and his family hired Native people across the country to get out the vote and led voter registration trainings so that volunteers could help their own communities. Semans estimates that those volunteers registered 2,500 new voters on the Navajo reservation.
“We hired individuals and they would just work within their family and their friends. So we didn’t have them pounding on doors of people they didn’t know. We had them working and calling people within their family and their friends that they had daily contact with anyway,” Semans said. “So we lessened the possibility of spreading the virus by utilizing the tribal members in their own network to get things done.”
The coronavirus is far from the only barrier Native voters have faced. Although Native Americans were granted the right to vote in 1924, the Arizona Supreme Court didn’t strike down the provision of its state constitution that prohibited Native Americans from voting until 1948. Today, Native voters still contend with large distances between polling sites, language barriers and issues using tribal identification to vote.
But Indigenous organizers on the ground in Arizona said something felt different this year. As voting rights activists across the country celebrate Stacey Abrams’s work in making Georgia a swing state, Parrish said her team and even her community feels like a part of the same wave. The impact of other communities of color is significant in Arizona, too. Across the state, Latino and younger voters have shifted Arizona’s demographics, and many credit grassroots Latino activists for yearslong efforts to change the state’s politics.
“What we’re really trying to work toward, all of us as communities of color, is that we are trying to build political power,” Davis said.
“Joe Biden was talking about building the blue wall back,” Semans said. “If you look at that blue wall and you look at Indian Country, they were backbones of building that wall back up.”