2020 Elections

Native American voters could help swing the 2020 presidential election

Key Points
  • Native American issues are coming to the forefront in the 2020 presidential elections and Democratic candidates are taking note.
  • The Native American vote could influence election results in seven major swing states: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Colorado, according to data from Four Directions.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro have released detailed Native American policy proposals while others have devoted sections of their websites to those issues.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren is escorted on stage by Donna Brandis (L) and Marcella LeBeau (R) at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 19, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

Native American issues are in sharper focus in the 2020 presidential election cycle, particularly as Democratic contenders put more emphasis on policy proposals.

The Native American electorate could end up being pivotal in seven major swing states: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado and Wisconsin, according to data from Four Directions.

"We can make a difference," said Renee Lenore Fasthorse Iron Hawk, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. "There are swing states that will make a difference. We can and have mobilized our vote when it matters."

The Native American population is 6.8 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau information from 2018. While that is relatively small compared with the U.S. population, which is nearly 330 million, the Native American population has more than doubled the growth rate of the United States. From 2000 to 2016, the U.S. population grew 14% while the American Indian and Alaskan Native population experienced 35% growth.

Iron Hawk said a new "awakening" of political activism in Native American communities is prompting candidates to respond. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro have released detailed Native American policy proposals. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Marianne Williamson have devoted sections of their websites to Native American issues.

Key issues include insufficient funding of federal programs, violence against Native American women, the lack of political representation and education reform.

The inaugural Native American Presidential Forum in August signaled a new interest in indigenous policies this election cycle. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner, and President Donald Trump have not released Native American policy proposals and did not attend the forum.

Native Americans tend to vote in numbers more favorable to Democrats. In 2012, President Barack Obama won nearly 70% of the indigenous vote.

Traci Morris, director of the American Indian Policy Institute and a member of the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma, said Native American issues are "surfacing" now due to increased congressional representation, an active Native American press, and younger Native Americans who are raising awareness on social media platforms like Twitter.

Guaranteed funding

Warren has proposed removing federal programs for Native Americans from the standard appropriations process and placing them under required funding instead.

Sanders has suggested implementing 10-20-30 legislation that would help address Native American disparities in employment, education and health care. The 2009 plan would require at least a 10% investment in communities where 20% or more of the population has lived under the poverty line for 30 years.

Brian Howard, a member of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, said these are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done to afford the 573 tribal nations agency in terms of how they'll implement the funding plan.

"The self-determination concept needs to be built into it [the plan]," said Howard, a policy analyst at Arizona State University's American Indian Policy Institute. "They need to implement these programs into their communities in the way they best see fit."

Insufficient funding has been an issue that has affected Native American communities for centuries. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission in a 2018 report called the federal government's funding of tribal communities "grossly inadequate."

"Since 2003, funding for Native American programs has mostly remained flat, and in the few cases where there have been increases, they have barely kept up with inflation or have actually resulted in decreased spending power," the report said.

"Indian programs have always been listed under discretionary funding," said Howard. "Because tribal programs are under discretionary funding under the federal government, they are always the first to get cut."

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

Violence against Native American women

Warren, Sanders, Castro and Williamson have all supported the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribal communities to prosecute non-tribal perpetrators — a population responsible for 96% of violent sexual crimes against Native American women.

Warren also proposed the nationwide Missing Indigenous Woman Alert System, modeled after the Amber Alert System. The system was presented as a bipartisan bill by former Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and the late John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2018.

Morris said the policy proposals are "commendable" but not comprehensive enough. She said candidates need to attack the issue from many angles — such as insufficient data tracking, jurisdictional issues, a lack of funding — that contribute to the epidemic of violence against American Indian women.

"It's not a soundbite fix," she said. "It sounds great, but there's a whole host of other issues that need to be dealt with. It's different on every tribe. A multipronged approach is what would be needed."

Rates of domestic violence against Native American women are 10 times higher than the rest of the United States, according to the Indian Law Resource Center. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence and Native American women are three times more likely to be slain than white women.

"For native women, we've basically been an invisible population in the United States," Lenore said.

Increased representation

Warren, Castro, and Williamson stated that they would reinstitute the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference and White House Council for Indigenous People, which were first established by former president Barack Obama.

Howard said reimplementing the annual conference and Cabinet-level policy advisor role would create direct access to the White House.

"It (the Cabinet-level policy advisor) creates a chain of communication that ensures issues and recommendations that are being discussed by tribal leadership [aren't] being lost in the vastness of the federal bureaucracy," he said.

Though Trump has maintained department-level policy advisor roles, Howard said several have not been filled and these positions do not ensure that the concerns of tribal nations will reach the highest levels of the government.

Gregory D. Smithers, professor of Native American history at Virginia Commonwealth University, said while the Trump administration "has channeled the worst aspects of this history and proven an utter disaster for Indian Country," the president's lack of engagement presents an opportunity for the Democratic candidates to sincerely partner with tribal leaders.

In September, Kimberly Teehee became the Cherokee Nation's first delegate to the U.S. House. Her nomination followed the historic 2018 midterm election of Reps. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and Sharice Davids, D-Kan., who are the first Native American women to serve in Congress.

Still, Haaland said more needs to be done to increase the number of indigenous representatives, even if it is as simple as convincing fellow Native Americans that "they can get involved and run for office".


Howard said candidates should commit to improving school infrastructure. He said some Native American schools are more than a century old and have not been adequately repaired.

"Annual funding for repair and construction of Bureau of Indian Education schools consistently falls short of the need," according to a report by the National Congress of American Indians. The report said 60 of 183 BIE schools were classified as being in "poor" condition in 2009.

Gabriel Sanchez, executive director of the University of New Mexico Center for Social Policy, said a renewed commitment to Present Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 Headstart Program is needed. He said the program is successful because of its adaptability, allowing Native American communities to retain their tribal languages and incorporate cultural traditions into the curricula.

While more than 60% of high school students in the U.S. attend college, only 17% of American Indian students go on to complete degrees in higher education, according to the Partnership with Native Americans.

Castro said he would invest in universal pre-K, tribal school infrastructure and commit $3 billion to "minority-serving institutions" like the Tribal Colleges and Universities.

Warren promised to invest in the education of Native American children "from birth through college" with universal child care, the revamping of school curriculum and universal free public college.