Tara Benally and her 16-year-old son Delaney After Buffalo set up a plastic table alongside the last dusty highway intersection before the Arizona state line. Here in Monument Valley, in the shadows of the towering red rock monoliths sacred among the Navajo, the two are doing something that’s rarely been done in this part of Utah: conducting a voter registration drive for local Native Americans. For the first time, Navajo and Utes living here have a chance at being fully represented at the local level when they vote in November. Even though Native Americans are the majority in this 14,750-person county, slightly edging out whites, county commissioner and school board district lines were gerrymandered to give white voters disproportionate power for more than three decades.
Many Native Americans across the West are still hamstrung by voter ID laws, polling place closures and voter registration purges. But in San Juan County and many other places, they are beginning to fight back, running for local, state and national offices, and suing jurisdictions that try to curb their political participation. They could even have a significant impact on some key midterm elections.
In 2012, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won her tight U.S. Senate race in solidly Republican North Dakota because of high turnout among Native American voters, who tend to favor Democratic candidates. They viewed the Democrat as an advocate for their communities.
But in the years after her victory, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed strict voter ID laws that one federal judge said had a “discriminatory and burdensome impact on Native Americans,” since they are more than twice as likely to lack a qualifying identification.