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Native American Voters No Longer Easily Suppressed in New Mexico

Posted: May 08, 2012

NEW ORLEANS – While New Mexico’s minority populations are no strangers to attempts to limit their voting rights, its Native American residents continue to add registered voters to the rolls. These voters may well become the swing vote in a swing state, and, if they repeat their 2008 voting pattern, would assist the Democratic Party in garnering the state’s five electoral votes in November’s election as it did in 2008.

"In New Mexico, we actually have had very similar experiences to the South when it comes to discriminative, active and intentional, systemic and institutional, with regard to Native voting," said Alvin Warren, executive vice president of Blue Stone Strategy Group, a consulting firm that specializes in Native American issues.

“Since 1975, several New Mexico counties that have been under federal monitoring for voting rights violations,” Warren noted. “I'm proud to tell you, though, that after all of that, we are in this incredible period of resurgence; of Native people regaining our voice and our vote. We have 65,000 registered Native American voters in the state, which I think is going to go up, probably to 70,000 to 75,000. We have 11 counties that have a significant Native presence, 91 precincts."

To put Warren’s estimates about the number of Native American voters in perspective, consider that New Mexico actually saw a larger overall population growth between 1990 and 2000 than between 2000 and 2010, the date of the last Census. Yet the Native American population has increased from 134,000 in 1990 to almost 220,000, now approximately 11 percent of the state's population of over two million.

Should Warren’s estimate of even 70,000 Native American registered voters prove accurate, it would mean almost a third of its Native American population could vote in November. But, like for many Americans, the state of the economy may figure prominently in their November decision as it did in their 2008 vote, according to some election analysts.

Warren, who served as Cabinet Secretary of Indian Affairs in New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, participated as a panelist with other experts on voting rights during the W.K. Kellogg* Foundation's second annual grantee conference for America Healing, an initiative for organizations to promote racial healing and racial equity to improve the lives of vulnerable children in communities.

During the panel discussion, Warren pointed out, that by organizing early, Native Americans benefitted from redistricting and organizations are using technology to increase civic participation among the tribes. He said there are 17 Native Americans running for office; their coalitions defeated three voter ID proposals and the state has three state Senate districts and six House districts with a majority of Native American voters and seven additional districts that have a significant percentage. There are only two Native American senators and three representatives, but he predicted those numbers will increase as civic engagement increases.

"I would say the majority of tribes now are actively involved in doing some kind of voter registration," he said."They're in their communities doing voter education. My community, I'm proud to say, we've been actively doing this for the last, oh, five or six cycles." Warren hails from Santa Clara Pueblo Indians, one of the over 20 pueblos and tribes throughout the state.

Warren’s success story of the emerging Native American vote in New Mexico stood in contrast to the assessments by his co-panelists of the current voting landscape for other minorities in other parts of the country. In the last two years, the nation has seen "the most wide-scale, most significant attacks on voting rights that we have seen in a century," said Judy Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project.

Browne Dianis said the efforts to suppress voting rights for Latinos and African Americans were a direct response to the higher turnout rates of African Americans, Latinos and students in the presidential election four years ago.

She noted that the American Legislative Exchange Council helped initiate many of the restrictive voter ID proposals in 34 states across the country. The proposals would require unexpired, state-issued photo identification with a current address and signature.

Currently voters must show photo IDs at polling places in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin. In South Carolina and Texas, strict photo ID laws have been approved, but under the Voting Rights Act these states must receive approval from the Justice Department for the new laws to be enacted. Without that approval, these states will require only non-photo ID.

"The Brennan Center did a report that showed that actually 21 million Americans do not have state-issued photo identification; 25 percent of African Americans do not have state-issued photo identification," said Browne Dianis, adding that tougher restrictions also have been placed on voter registration drives in some states.

During discussion, panelist Genaro Lopez-Rendon, director of the Southwest Worker's Union, cited election issues related to Latinos in Texas. He noted that there are 600,000 people who have voted previously but may not be able to vote this year if the Justice Department allows the state to enact its photo ID law. Among those unable to vote would be his grandmother.

“Hundreds of thousands of registered voters already and hundreds of thousands of potentially registered voters in Texas" would be impacted, he said. "So I mentioned my grandma. And my grandma is now 90 years old. She votes in every election. She has not had an ID for the last 20 years.... So my grandma's going to be one of these 600,000 people that will not be able to vote if this type of proposal goes through."

Maya Wiley, president and executive director of the Center for Social Inclusion and the moderator for the panel, spoke of the need for citizens to become engaged in defending their right to vote. "Because the more they're engaged in being able to govern, the more they're engaged also in fighting," she said, noting that the restrictive laws "keep them from being engaged."

*NAM is a Kellogg grantee.

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