Leonard Gorman is a man of maps. He heads the Navajo Nation’s Human Rights Commission, which among other responsibilities, is charged with protecting and promoting Navajo voters’ rights to choose candidates who will reasonably represent their interests. He and his team all work out of their trailer office in Window Rick, Arizona—the Navajo Nation’s capitol—where they chart data that they’ve collected on the potential impacts of redistricting on the Navajo Nation. The first map Gorman’s team submitted to the Arizona Redistricting Commission resembled the letter J, encompassing the edge of Arizona’s eastern border and curving up towards the west. Although that map included large portions of Arizona’s Native population, the Navajo Nation later opted out of it because Arizona’s hardline anti-immigrants liked it too much. It included large southern border areas, where white conservative ranchers are more likely to vote Republican and would have infringed on Arizona’s growing Latino districts. “We immediately learned that the J map was playing into the extreme right position,” explains Gorman.
So the Human Rights Commission went back to the drawing board and submitted what Gorman calls the “non-J map,” which the Commission eventually adopted for Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. It was that map that helped Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat running for the House, win back her seat in November.
As election results first poured in, it seemed as if Kirkpatrick was doomed to lose once more. Yet at about 1:30 in the morning, when counties with high numbers of Native voters started coming in, that all changed. In Apache County alone, which includes a large portion of the Navajo Nation, Kirkpatrick garnered nearly 70 percent of the vote. “The election isn’t over until the last precinct comes in from the reservation,” proclaims Ron Lee, Kirkpatrick’s district director, who headed the tribal outreach effort during the campaign. Kirkpatrick first held the seat it in 2009, but lost it in 2011 to Republican Paul Gossar—a Tea Party darling whose endorsements included Sarah Palin. Determined to make it back to the House, Kirkpatrick spent a lot of time after her defeat on the Navajo Nation. Arizona’s independent voters make up a third of the state’s electorate. But instead of investing crucial time with those independent white voters, Kirkpatrick spent the day before the election on the White Mount Apache reservation. On Election Day, she somehow managed to visit Tuba City, Window Rock, Chinle and Kayanta—which are all population centers, but hours away from each other on the vast Navajo Nation.
Lee’s not just boasting. Kirkpatrick’s victory is a reflection of how crucial Native voters are to Democrats’ success here and in several Western states. Four of the tightest Senate races took place in states with some of the largest percentages of Native Americans: Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota and Montana. The Native vote in three of those states helped Democrats win key victories and maintain control of the Senate.
Yet the 2012 election in these states also revealed just how hard Native communities still must work to participate in democracy—and just how little they are getting in return for their organizing efforts. Natives around the country still face incredible barriers when trying to vote. Despite the Fourteenth Amendment, it wasn’t until the 1924 Snyder Act that all Natives were granted US citizenship, which included the right to vote. It took some states up to fifty years to recognize that right and the ongoing struggle to cast ballots today often remains entrenched in the long history of disenfranchisement.