FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Politically active Native Americans have organized an effort to get voters on the reservation out to the polls. American Indians make up 5 percent of the population in Arizona, 10 percent in New Mexico, and could make a difference in a close election.
When Arizona’s congressional map was redrawn in 2010, nearly a dozen of the state’s tribes agreed that collectively they could make a political impact in the 1st Congressional District, the state’s largest. It covers most of Northern and Eastern Arizona and includes a majority of the state’s American Indians.
This election season, Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick has campaigned on the reservation and even spent money on radio ads. Kirkpatrick, who represented the district two years ago, says she’s always had good support on the Navajo Nation.
"I think that goes back to the fact that I grew up on tribal land, White Mountain Apache tribal land, and can relate to the life that they’re living there, the struggle with infrastructure, the struggle with simple things like running water and electricity," Kirkpatrick said. "I relate to that because I lived it."
Her opponent, Republican Jonathan Paton, says as a veteran he too can relate to the many Navajo tribal members who have served in the armed forces. He has spent time talking to people at their chapter houses, and last July he reported to the Navajo Tribal Council.
"At the end of it, it was interesting because they ask you questions after you speak, you give your answers then they vote whether they accept your report or not, which is kind of like being voted off the island in Survivor or something like that," Paton said.
Paton was proud that a mostly Democratic council gave him a unanimous vote of approval.
But it’s unclear how efforts to court the Native American vote on the nation’s largest reservation will affect this election, which is expected to be close. Historically Navajo voter turnout has lagged behind the rest of Arizona. In this year’s primary only 30 percent of those eligible to vote went to the polls. Navajo Elections spokesman Johnny Thompson says on such a vast reservation, it’s difficult to campaign.
"You see signs in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff. The same sign you see there, you don’t see it here on the Navajo Nation. Maybe there is one or two here and there but that’s about it," Thompson said.
Also many tribal members live far away from polls or have trouble getting early ballots. Thompson said they’re disinterested in tribal politicians, who don’t have term limits, and often stay in office for decades.
Fred Solop is a political scientist at Northern Arizona University. He said people with higher levels of education and higher income tend to vote frequently. It’s just the opposite for those who are mostly uneducated and poor.
"So minority populations like Native Americans and Latinos to some extent in Arizona tend to be in these demographics," Solop said. "They just don’t participate. They’re not as involved in the system."
That’s why the National Congress of American Indians, the largest tribal political organization, has held a series of events in Arizona, New Mexico and all across the country to get out the Native vote.