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In Indian Country, COVID-19 Yet Another Obstacle To Casting A Vote

Navajo voters casting their ballots after riding 10 miles on horseback through Navajo County, Ariz.
Talia Mayden
Navajo voters casting their ballots after riding 10 miles on horseback through Navajo County, Ariz.

About a week before Election Day, as the Wind River Reservation was bracing for snow, Wyoming State Rep. Andi Clifford squeezed in some roadside campaigning outside of a community hall in Arapahoe.

"Normally we would've been inside," she said. "But we can't, so we're out here."

The reservation's public health orders prohibit large, indoor gatherings. So as Clifford seeks a second term representing Wind River, she and her team have been spending a lot of time outside in the cold.

"We think of our ancestors and what they've gone through under the elements," she said. "So it's a little bit of suffering for a couple of hours, but I don't care."

When two women pulled up in a pickup truck, campaign volunteers brought them bowls of stew and pieces of frybread. Clifford handed them a voting guide.

"Did you get to vote yet?" she asked. Both women shook their heads no.

Like most voters in Clifford's district, they're planning to wait until Election Day when they can vote in one of four polling places on the reservation. The only early voting center in Fremont County is the county clerk's office in Lander. Depending on where you live on Wind River and what the weather's like, that drive can take anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour.

"However I'm encouraging people to go because the coronavirus is at a spike here, and I don't want them to be quarantined and not be able to go and vote on Nov. 3," Clifford said.

A week before Election Day, data from the Wyoming Secretary of State's Office showed that Clifford's constituents had cast about a third as many early and mail-in ballots as voters in the neighboring house district.

Wind River voters are facing what the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF, calls the "tyranny of distance." Samantha Kelty, an attorney with the nonprofit law group, said it's a problem that the pandemic has only intensified.

"It's caused worsening economic conditions or loss of jobs, and so when it was hard enough to find enough money for a tank of gas to get to the county seat, now it's just impossible," Kelty said.

Distance isn't the only problem. In a 2018 report titled "Obstacles at Every Turn," NARF laid out how strict voter registration laws disproportionately affect Native people in some places. Poor postal access makes voting by mail a challenge, and a lack of broadband can prevent people from accessing voter information.

"It's just layered — obstacle on top of obstacle on top of obstacle," Kelty said. "And all of these issues have been ongoing. They just have the spotlight on them now with COVID-19."

This year, NARF worked to secure satellite voting offices on reservations across Montana, where many Native people would otherwise travel two to three times farther than non-Natives to get to the polls.

NARF also helped secure the right of third-party organizations to collect ballots and deliver them to election officials on behalf of tribal members in Nevada and Montana.

But in other communities, there have been setbacks. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona lost its court battle for an early voting center that it requested because of the pandemic. One county in South Dakota cited the virus as a reason not to provide early voting on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

And there's another persistent problem when it comes to voting in Indian Country – distrust of the federal government, and the feeling that Native people and the issues they care about will be ignored no matter who's in office.

"I get it. You know, I hear that," said Allie Young, an organizer on the Navajo Nation.

She said struggles during the pandemic, including the slow rollout of federal coronavirus aid to tribal nations, has only intensified that distrust.

"But at the same time, this election is too important to sit out," she said. "And so I was trying to come up with ways of, 'How can we speak to our Native voters? How can we get them excited?'"

So, she organized a trail ride. Young and 15 other voters rode about 10 miles on horseback to cast their ballots early in Kayenta, Ariz.

"You know, our elders fought for our right to vote and they rode more miles and longer hours to get to the polls, so let's do this in honor of them," Young said.

She hopes pictures and videos of the ride on social media will inspire more Native people to get to the polls, even if it's not easy.

Copyright 2020 Wyoming Public Radio

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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