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Although California is home to the largest Native American population in the United States, voting has always been problematic. This year, the pandemic — and the state’s decision to mail ballots to every California voter — has created new issues for tribal lands, whose residents often lack traditional mailing addresses.
Outreach groups, which were focused initially on encouraging tribal members to fill out their Census forms, have deployed some of the same tactics to get out the vote. “Because of the pandemic and the changing Census deadline, we have had to run at full speed with both of those efforts,” said Chrissie Castro of the California Native Voting Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to build Native political power and participation. “The silver lining is that we’ve been forced to learn new strategies and approaches that we may not have otherwise utilized that have been extremely effective in reaching Native American community members.”
A few years ago, when the voting project began, it reached out to Native Americans mostly through in-person events. Now, however, it is using phone and text banking, holding virtual voter education events, and sending out digital voter guides.
Poor internet services remain a problem, however, so voter outreach groups have also relied on an older form of communication that is a mainstay in some tribal communities: local radio stations.
Kelly Sanders is the registrar of voters for Humboldt County. When she reached out to the Hoopa Valley Tribe in August to ask about the best way to disseminate information, she said, she was put in touch with the local radio station.
Byron Nelson, the chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, who hosts a call-in radio show about Native affairs, said he hadn’t heard complaints about the voting process from tribal members. “The community here will protest and will voice their opinion if they don’t like something,” Nelson said, adding that many of the people he has spoken to have voted by mail.
In-person voting offers different complications, because reservation lands can be immense and populations sparse. The Hoopa Valley, for instance, has only one polling location.
There are currently no polling locations on Wiyot land, said Ted Hernandez, chairman of the Wiyot Tribe, located in Humboldt County. He said Wiyot members living in one of the 40 or so homes on reservation land have to travel about five miles to the town of Loleta to vote.
A measure approved by Governor Newsom, AB 2314, requires the Secretary of State to convene a task force to recommend strategies for increasing Native American voter participation. The measure becomes law on January 1, 2021.
Election Day, however, will provide some indication of the success of efforts by county officials and Native voting groups to get out the vote. “We hope that we see an upswing in both registered Native American voters, and registered Native American voters that vote in this presidential election,” Castro said. “That will be the true test of whether our outreach efforts were effective.”
Freddy Brewster is a reporter at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Graduate School of Journalism.