Native youth vote starts early
There’s power in families who vote together. They can create a generation of voters.
“Having youth engaged early is really important to create someone who will be a lifelong civically engaged person,” said Elizabeth Day, community engagement projects manager of the Native American Community Development Institute. “It’s part of that generational approach that youth will eventually one day become an elder and help their grandchildren to vote and continue to be engaged. It’s an important part of that cycle.”
The New York Times reported in 2016 that voting habits are formed in early childhood or adolescence.
Although the turnout for 18-to-24-year-old voters was the lowest in the 2020 election, with 51 percent, it was still the highest voter turnout overall, the U.S. Census Bureau reported.
That election showed just how strong the Native vote was by helping Joe Biden win in some key states. Voters in precincts on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in northeastern Arizona rose by 29 percent compared to the 2016 election, according to the Associated Press. And compared to 2016, twice as many voters casted their ballots on the Havasupai reservation in support of Biden.
Day's family, who has always talked about politics, current events and the history of events with the children, said it’s a celebration for those who vote in their first election.
“It’s always really fun when someone turns 18 and gets to vote for the first time. It’s kind of a right of passage. It’s a fun day for everyone,” she said.
She has previously and continues to bring her 7-year-old son to the polls on Election Day.
The Native American Community Development Institute found that through their project, “Make Voting A Tradition,” communities needed them to be around all year and not only during the election season. It’s made them continuously be a source of voter education to Indigenous communities, as well as being a nonprofit that shows no favor toward a particular party.
“It’s given us the flexibility and the space to create trust and to build trust in the community,” Day said.
Cassandra Holmes, a canvasser for “Make Voting A Tradition,” said the program has even helped a man in his 80s become a first-time voter. To celebrate being a first-time voter she created signs for them to take a picture with.
“I wanted our community to be proud that they voted, if they were a first-time voter, and to share that with our community,” the Lac Courte Oreilles citizen said.
Candice Joe, Diné, a civic engagement specialist for the Phoenix Indian Center and a previous youth advocate for the center, said they are focusing on voter registration for county and tribal elections.
“We’re trying to bridge that gap between Native youth voters and getting really into being civically engaged,” she said. “It’s not like a primary election where a lot of people are willing to go out and vote, but there [are] still a lot of people who are civically engaged. It’s just not as huge as we see for presidential elections for the whole national elections.”
Yet, Joe said about 50 to 100 people have gone through the Phoenix Indian Center’s website to register to vote for the midterm election. The center has a special QR code that allows them to track how many people go through their website to register.
And she estimates that she has helped register about 300 first-time voters for the Navajo Nation election on Nov. 8.
“With that number we’ve been able to really target the urban Navajo community because a lot of people aren’t able to go back home to register to vote or they aren’t able to go back to their chapter house,” she said.
There are approximately 110 chapter houses located on the Navajo Nation reservation. Each serves as local government subdivisions that are under the five agencies of the Navajo Nation government.
Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, a Native women-led organization, said that voting is one of the powerful tools young Indigenous people can use to make effective change.
They along with Native Organizers Alliance and First Peoples Worldwide created the campaign Natives Vote that provides information, resources and content to “drive voter engagement in Indian Country.”
“It’s so vital that our younger Native voters understand that every time we show up at the ballot box that’s one way we defend tribal sovereignty. That’s one way we really show how we care for our community and that we’re wanting to protect ourselves and the things that matter most: our land, our water,” the Pawnee citizen said. “But we also understand that voting is only one way that we do that. It’s not the end all be all. That’s the larger conversation we’re trying to engage young voters in.”
Tristian Belgarde, Western Native Voice’s youth program director, said although his new upcoming program isn’t necessarily about registering Native youth voters, he still aims to educate them in advance about how to navigate and utilize the government for Indigenous issues.
The Western Native Voice is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization in Montana that strives to increase Native American participation and engagement in voting, to nurture Native leadership and impact policies that affect Native communities.
The organization’s Expanding Horizons program will be made up of a 15-student panel, seven Native students from the urban areas and eight Native students from tribal communities.
He said beginning with the youth early on will help them understand issues and topics like redistricting or how to make public comments.
“When you’re younger a lot of those things are foundation; it’s building that foundation,” the Chippewa Cree citizen said. “It’s important because in government there’s a lot of decisions that are made, that the average student if they’re not interested in government, they don’t know.”
This report was first published by ICT.