2020 APSA Election Reflection Series: The 2020 Election in Indian Country: Progress but Equity is Still Elusive

Prior to the 2020 election, APSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Programs Department issued a call for submissions for a PS Now series entitled 2020 APSA Election Reflections. The views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of the APSA. Read more about the Election Reflection Series below, after the feature essay.

The 2020 Election in Indian Country: Progress but Equity is Still Elusive

By Dr. Jean Schroedel, Claremont Graduate University; Dr. Joseph Dietrich, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; and Kara Mazareas, Claremont Graduate University

This past election season included the first ever presidential candidate forums devoted to Native American issues, one in July 2019 in Sioux City and a second in January 2020 in Las Vegas. The 117th Congress will include the first indigenous Hawaiian, as well as four Native Americans.[1] Representative Deb Haaland, who would have been the fifth Native American Member of Congress, has been selected to lead the Department of Interior, which is another first for the Native American community.[2] At the state level, nearly 100 Native Americans will take elected offices or serve in judicial roles starting in 2021.[3] Finally, voter turnout among Native Americans appears to be at its highest level ever.[4] All of these elements are signs of real progress with respect to Native American electoral participation, representation, and visibility, but there still are significant obstacles to equality.

Far too often, Native American attempts to register are derailed as nearly occurred in Minnesota, where a very successful Native-focused registration drive resulted in more than 8,000 completed forms; many of which were only accepted after threats of legal action.[5] As has been true for a number of years, the closure of polling places, felony disenfranchisement laws, the purging of voter rolls, strict voter ID laws, non-standard addressing, and travel distance further impede access to the ballot box.[6] What was new in 2020 was the increased importance of voting by mail (VBM), which was touted as a way for people to safely vote during the pandemic, but it is far from a panacea for Native communities that have been ravaged by COVID.[7] Voting rights attorneys argue that VBM imposes additional barriers to Native Americans’ access to voting, due to the lack of home mail delivery, inability to get language assistance, travel distance to postal locations, and lack of reliable transportation.[8]

While examining all the possible barriers was beyond our ability at this time, there were some elements amenable to testing during the lead-up to the 2020 election. We decided to analyze access to mail services and the quality of those services by doing an in-depth analysis of differences between access for voters, living on the Navajo Nation, and those in nearby Arizona communities. The project is exploratory in terms of the target populations, but it fits within the well-established field of observational research in the social sciences.[9] Funding was provided by an APSA Diversity and Inclusion Research Advancement Grant along with Four Directions, a Native American voting rights organization. Our preliminary findings show that voters, living on the Navajo Nation, face greater obstacles in voting-by-mail than do off-reservation voters. We focused on two categories of barriers to participation: 1) access to mail services and 2) service delivery times.

The Navajo Nation, which encompasses 27,425 square miles, is slightly larger than West Virginia. Two-thirds of the reservation is in Arizona. Because there is no residential mail delivery, Navajo must travel to post offices and receive mail, but according to the Navajo Nation President only about 10% of families have vehicles.[10] There are only eleven post offices and 16 postal provider sites[11] on the reservation in Arizona, as opposed to 725 in West Virginia.[12] This translates into an average of one postal location for every 687 square miles on the reservation. Three precincts (Dennehotso, Mexican Water and Rock Point), which include a land mass of 871 square miles, do not have a single post office.

To test mail delivery, we did two rounds of mailing letters, with tracking from different locations on and off- reservation to county election officials. During early August 2020, we sent letters from different postal locations on-reservation, as well as from Scottsdale and the county seats of Apache, Coconino and Navajo Counties, which also includes parts of the Navajo Nation. Letters from the off-reservation post offices arrived within 1-3 days, while those from reservation sites took much longer, up to ten days, including one that traveled 3,358 miles before getting lost. We did a second round of mailings on October 27, 2020, the date identified by the Secretary of State as when mail-in-ballots needed to be sent to assure their arrival by Election Day. We included a broader mix of off-reservation postal locations to ensure that we had a representative sample of rural, suburban and urban postal locations, as well as additional reservation locations. Every off-reservation letter arrived within 1-3 days, but the reservation ones again took significantly longer, and one did not arrive at all. The average delivery time for certified first-class mail was approximately 39 hours from urban post offices, 49 hours from off-reservation rural post offices, and 113 hours from post offices on the reservation.

This research also highlights the persistence of racially biased structural inequities, in terms of government services, which continue to shape people’s lives. Most western post offices were established between 1840 and 1900, when they served as important conduits for economic development, connecting miners, ranchers, and soldiers.[13] Post offices were not established on reservations until much later. For example, in Apache County, the off-reservation town of Concho (population of 116) has had a full-service post office since 1881.[14] Teec Nos Pos (population of 793), on the reservation, did not get a post office until 1961 and it still provides less service than Concho.[15] Our tracking showed that certified first-class mail to the County Recorder’s office from Teec Nos Pos took over twice as long as it did for the equivalent mail from Concho.

Even though the state and federal officials responsible for initially institutionalizing those biased structural disparities are long dead, their racial animus still affects the lives of Native people in very real ways. Pierson describes this as the “stickiness of history” that inhibits social change even after the initial impetus was generations back.[16] Both the nature of mail service on reservations generally and its implications for equal voting access in 2020 —have been shaped by racially discriminatory policies of the past that are carried forward in often un-recognized ways. The layers of institutional prejudice endure within our administrative and cultural systems in both crude and subtle ways. At this historical moment it is crucial we address both overt and subtle forms racism continue to perpetuate injustice, including those present in unassuming institutions, such as the postal service.


[1] Caitlin O’Kane, “A Record-breaking 6 Native Candidates Were Elected to Congress on Tuesday,” CBS News (website), November 14, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/six-native-americans-elected-to-congress-record-breaking.[2] Cameron Jenkins, “Deb Haaland Says ‘Of Course’ She Would Serve as Interior Secretary Under Biden,” The Hill (website), November 14, 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/news/525434-deb-haaland-says-of-course-she-would-serve-as-interior-secretary-under-biden.

[3] Daniel Lathrop, “Native Candidates Score in Legislative, Other Bids,” Indian Country Today (website), November 13, 2020, https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/native-candidates-score-in-legislative-other-bids-9vXRbpqwokaIHTxpl4RFmQ.

[4] See Alexia Fernandez Campbell and Carrie Levine, “Native Americans, Hit Hard By COVID-19, Faced Major Barrier to Vote,” Center for Public Integrity (website), November 12, 2020, https://publicintegrity.org/politics/elections/ballotboxbarriers/native-americans-faced-major-barriers-to-vote-turnout/; Nora Mabie, “Analysis: Native American Voters in Montana Turned Out for Joe Biden, Democrats,” Great Falls Tribune (website), November 13, 2020, https://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/news/2020/11/11/election-2020-montana-native-american-voters-joe-biden-democrats/6163692002/; Anna V. Smith, “How Indigenous Voters Swung the 2020 Election,” High Country News (website), November 14, 2020 https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-how-indigenous-voters-swung-the-2020-election.

[5] See Steven Sandven October 16 letter to the Secretary of State Steve Simon.

[6] Jean Reith Schroedel, Voting in Indian Country: The View From the Trenches (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

[7] Center for American Indian Health, “Programs: COVID-19 Response,” Johns Hopkins University (website), November 14, 2020, https://caih.jhu.edu/programs/category/covid-19-response.

[8] Patty Ferguson-Bohnee and James T. Tucker, “Voting During a Pandemic: Vote-by-Mail Challenges for Native Voters,” Arizona Attorney (July/August 2020): 24-35.

[9] Lynne E.F. McKechnie, “Observational Research,” in The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research, ed. by Lisa M. Givens (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008), 573-575.

[10] Jonathan Nez, Voting Rights and Elections: Administration in Arizona. (written testimony), quoted in Jason Chavez, “Inconvenient Voting: Native Americans and the Costs of Early Voting” (MA Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2020).

[11] Postal providers are non-USPS contractors that offer limited mail services in non-post offices, such as mini-markets and gas stations.

[12] “West Virginia Post Offices,” Postal Locations (website), November 14, 2020, https://www.postallocations.com/wv.

[13] Cameron Blevins, “The Postal West: Spatial Integration and the American West, 1865-1902” (Ph.D. Diss., Stanford University, 2015).

[14] United States Census Bureau, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates, Concho CDP,” American Community Survey, United States Census Bureau (website), November 14, 2020, https://www.census.gov/acs/www/data/data-tables-and-tools/data-profiles/; United States Postal Service, “Postmaster Finder,” United States Postal Service (website), November 14, 2020, https://webpmt.usps.gov/pmt006.cfm, County name: “Apache”, State: “Arizona”

[15] United States Census Bureau, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates, Teec Nos Pos CDP,” American Community Survey, United States Census Bureau (website), November 14, 2020, https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?g=0400000US04_1600000US0472560&d=ACS%205-Year%20Estimates%20Data%20Profiles&tid=ACSDP5Y2018.DP05; United States Postal Service, “Postmaster Finder,” United States Postal Service (website), November 14, 2020, https://webpmt.usps.gov/pmt006.cfm, County name: “Apache”, State: “Arizona.”

[16] Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 8.

About the 2020 Election Reflection Series

The call asked submitters to respond to one or two of the following questions:

  1. Tell us about an original research project, article, or finding that you are working on, which sheds light upon political behavior and/or public opinion and the 2020 Presidential or State and Local Campaign and Election.
  2. How have you incorporated themes relevant to diversity, inclusion, equity, race, systemic racism, protest, or representation into your political science teaching or research on the 2020 campaign and election, or your service and engagement?
  3. What group(s) of the electorate does your research focus on and what policy issue(s) proved to be salient to them in the 2020 Campaigns and Elections?
  4. What role can/does political science research play in helping to make sense of the 2020 Campaign and Election results?

 All submissions were welcome. We were especially interested in featuring content that addressed the political behavior and opinion of individuals from the following groups: underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women, individuals with disabilities, first generation Americans, Indigenous communities, and the LGBT community. All submissions were reviewed by APSA staff political scientists.

What resulted is a series, covering a diverse collection of political science topics ranging across such sub-fields as public opinion, political behavior, political parties, race, ethnicity and politics, gender and politics, Indigenous Politics, teaching and learning political science and classroom discussion strategies, and the complex intersectionalities contained therein. Additionally, a variety of research methodologies are brought to bear to address and shed light upon these topics and research questions.

We understand that this series is but a snapshot of the political science scholarship being done on the 2020 Campaign and Election. However, it is our hope that these pieces will contribute to election-related scholarship, critical thought, and informed discussion in the weeks and months to come. To that end, we invite your comments. You can find more information and the complete series at 2020 Election Reflections.

Kimberly A. Mealy, PhD
Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programs
American Political Science Association