Expanding Indigenous access to the ballot is good for democracy

Sharon Lewis, a member of the Pueblo of Acoma, breathes a sigh of relief after finally casting her ballot at the Tribal Center in Acoma on Nov. 2, 2004. Lewis had to wait more than 45 minutes after one of the two voting machines at the polling place broke down. (Photo by Rick Scibelli / Getty Images)

Indigenous communities across the U.S. are being denied the full measure of our civil rights, including the right to fully participate in the democratic process. Native Americans make up at least 12% of New Mexico’s population, but you’d be hard-pressed to find that representation in any sector within the state — especially in the political arena.

In 1940s New Mexico, Isleta citizen Miguel Trujillo returned from WWII only to be considered an “Indian not taxed” by the state’s constitution and was prohibited from voting. While Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship and suffrage by the federal government in 1924, New Mexico kept its prohibition towards our communities. Undeterred, Trujillo took Valencia County to court on the grounds that just because he didn’t pay property taxes on his traditional homelands, he still deserved to vote.

In 1948, he won his battle, and Native Americans were granted suffrage in New Mexico.

A Zuni Pueblo polling location in 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was another step toward strengthening the tenet that all citizens deserve equal access to the voting booth, especially for our Black relatives. They fought tooth and nail for the protections that came under that legislation and, in the wake of President Johnson’s signature, over 250,000 new Black voters were registered that year.

However, with the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, our communities are far less protected. In Florida, the poll tax is back. Voter ID laws are on the books in states across the country

Indigenous voters living on reservations often lack a traditional mailing address. We lack the infrastructure (paved roads, street names, and numbered homes) more common in cities that make registering to vote or receiving an absentee ballot easier. Many of our elders continue to exclusively speak their traditional languages, but resources to translate ballots are lacking. Both are barriers and increase the likelihood of disenfranchising Native voters. 

The New Mexico Voting Rights Act currently making its way through the Roundhouse has reforms that all New Mexicans can take advantage of: enfranchisement for former felons, automatic voter registration, making permanent the option to vote by mail, and preventing the release of private voter data. In addition, a provision within the bill is titled the Native American Voting Rights Act, which provides solutions for many of the issues listed above.

Voters living on reservations without a traditional mailing address could instead register using the address of official tribal buildings. Language translation services would be strengthened. Access to the early vote would be expanded substantially. Requests from Tribes to upgrade their election infrastructure would be considered and funded. Notably, county commissioners would also be required to consult with Tribes in drawing political boundaries instead of drawing arbitrary lines that violate community consensus.

We’re citizens of our Tribal nations, the state we reside in, and of the United States. After centuries of colonization, genocide, and antagonism both de jure and de facto, the least we deserve is a voice in America’s young democracy.


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Ahtza D. Chavez, NM Native Vote
Ahtza D. Chavez, NM Native Vote

Ahtza Chavez is executive director of NM Native Vote, a 501(c)4 Indigenous-led organization working on policy and increasing the voting bloc for Native Americans in New Mexico.