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How Native American Voters Have Affected Election Results

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, when all the votes are counted, the winning margin in Arizona may be quite slim. And those who watch Arizona politics may be left reflecting on the impact of more than a dozen events featuring free tacos and frybread.

This has to do with Native Americans, especially those living on Navajo Nation in the northeast corner of the state. Voter registration is a big issue there. Many people aren't assigned a physical address. So a group called the Rural Utah Project work to register and turn out Indigenous voters on the Navajo Nation. They have been driving across the reservation, holding voter registration events and, yes, offering free food. Since last year, they have managed to register more than 4,000 Native American voters in Arizona.

Tara Benally is field director for the Rural Utah Project and has been doing some of this work on the ground.

Welcome.

TARA BENALLY: Hi.

KELLY: I love the thought of frybread being a critical driver in getting out the vote.

BENALLY: (Laughter).

KELLY: Let me start by asking how Native Americans voted in this election. They tend to vote overwhelmingly blue. What were you hearing in the field as you were organizing voters about why?

BENALLY: Well, in the last few years, people have been wanting a change, wanting to see change happen. And that didn't happen with this administration, and so, more or less, a lot of people were seeing that it was just a downhill descent, rather than an uphill - trying to make changes here across Navajo, you know, with budgets being cut and things just not happening on Navajo or with any other Indigenous nations.

KELLY: So what are some of the challenges that you were facing in trying to register Native American voters?

BENALLY: Well, first and foremost would have been the COVID-19. When we first originally started back in March of this year, we were able to go door to door, go to the local chapter meetings and just do presentations there and just educate the people. And our field organizers had just gone through the training when COVID had happened. After the two-month lockdown had been lifted, we went back and invested in thousands of Ziploc bags and put voter registration forms and just hang them on the doorknob, so that way we would leave and so there was zero contact there.

KELLY: What about the lack of physical addresses that I mentioned? You know, if you want to go register to vote, you're supposed to give your physical address. People in Navajo Nation do not always have a formal address. How did you try to work with that?

BENALLY: So the Arizona form, they had an area where they would write a descriptive address, whether that was 13 miles south of whatever town that was off of Highway 191, take a left at mile marker 12. But then they also had a map down below to where people could draw out the location of their homes but with plus code. We had partner back in 2008 with Google to do plus code. Plus coding is just a series of numeral, alphabetical - and that was a shorten of the longitude-longitude coordinates. And that really helped to put people in the correct precinct.

KELLY: OK, so it's - you may not have a formal street address, but you've got a GPS coordinate.

BENALLY: Right.

KELLY: And you've been working with Google to let people use that to register to vote. That's fascinating. One last thing before I let you go, which is - a record number of Indigenous women were elected to Congress this year, it looks like. What is the conversation about a historic moment there for Native Americans?

BENALLY: That is, like, the greatest thing in the world to happen. I know back in 2018, when Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were voted into office and Ruth Buffalo - you know, that was like, wow, we're finally getting somebody in there that knows how to take care of families, to understand the value of what family means from when the sun first rises until the sun sets. And even through the night, you know, mothers are always looking over their families, regardless of what time of day it is. And now we can see that happening across the United States, where Indigenous families are concerned.

KELLY: Tara Benally - she's field director for the Rural Utah Project, speaking to us from Bluff, Utah.

BENALLY: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.