In Arizona, these young Native American voters seize their political power

By Ximena Bustillo, Elena Moore/NPR
Published: Thursday, February 8, 2024 - 8:12am

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Young and Native voters interviewed by NPR
Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
Lourdes Pereira (left to right), 23, Matthew Holgate, 23, Alec Ferreira, 25, Shelbylyn Henry, 32, Xavier Medina, 25, and Nalani Lopez, 19. The six voters met with NPR at the Phoenix Indian Center in downtown Phoenix.

Young and Native voters could make or break the 2024 election in Arizona for President Biden. Four years ago, both groups helped Biden win the state by just 11,400 votes, making him the first Democratic candidate to carry Arizona in over 20 years.

This year, these voters are expected to not only be influential in the race for the White House but also for control of Congress.

In between, there are young, Native voters deciding how to use their electoral power.

But strategists and politicians familiar with organizing Native voters agree: more needs to be done to court this significant voting bloc.

"Native voters are powerful, and we can't be ignored anymore. We've shown that," said Jaynie Parrish, executive director of Arizona Native Vote. Parrish is part of the Navajo Nation. "And we just need other people to meet us where we are and get on board."

The battleground state is home to 22 federally recognized Native tribes and nations. The U.S. Census estimates that more than 300,000 people in Arizona identify as Native American. Each tribal government and community, whether it's rural or urban, has its own unique governance, history and challenges to participating in state and federal elections.

"We are fighting against structures that weren't built for us. ... They weren't meant for us there. They were trying to kill us all. We're not supposed to be here," Parrish said. "We're not supposed to be voters."

Organizers say challenges remain with outreach from the Democratic and Republican parties.

Outreach that goes beyond asking for a vote. Arizona GOP state Rep. David Cook said that Native voters are stereotyped as affiliating with Democrats, leaving votes on the table for the Republican Party.

"[Republicans] need to get outside their comfort zone and go out and meet those Americans, those Arizonans in this state," Cook said, whose legislative district borders five tribal reservations. "That one Native American vote on that reservation, no matter what party, is just as important as my [own] vote."

Cook said that he has seen limited attempts to bridge that gap from his party in Arizona, something he sees as shortsighted when many conservative issues could overlap with issues in Native communities.

"Tribal members on reservations have a lot in common with those people that live off reservations in small rural communities," he said. "They want good schools and education opportunities. They want good jobs, but really careers to raise families on. They want good roads and bridges and stuff for their kids. And they want to live in safe communities."

When asked who is responsible for conducting outreach to tribal members, the Republican National Committee told NPR it doesn't have a point person but is rolling out voting resources in Navajo. The Arizona GOP did not respond to NPR's requests about tribal outreach, but there are signs that statewide candidates acknowledge the need to mobilize the community. Kari Lake, a Republican running for Arizona Senate, has a Natives for Kari Lake group.

Democrats have a head start. They formed outreach roles on the national level at the Democratic National Committee, down to the local Navajo County office.

Loren Marshall, 38, is the director of campaigns and engagement for Northeast Arizona Native Democrats, a project of the Navajo County Democrats. Marshall, who wasn't registered to vote until 2020, works to get tribal members registered to vote and has put an emphasis on courting young voters.

She said she's encountered pushback from younger voters over not wanting to be active in a system that damaged their communities.

"'Why would we want to participate or get involved in something that just has not been something that we've practiced or something that we've done as Natives'," Marshall said, repeating comments she'd heard.

Still, she said she's confident turnout will be high for Democrats this year, partially due to their focus on community-based organizing.

"We're going to be able to get a lot of folks to come out, and the voter turnout is going to be pretty high," Marshall said. "It's going to be a great election year in tribal communities."

Arizona ranks as the top third state where young voters are most likely to shape the presidential race, according to data from Tufts University, and the top state for young voter impact on the Senate election.

NPR spoke with six young Indigenous-identifying Arizona voters to discuss what political parties need to do to win over their potentially election-deciding vote this November.

  • Alec Ferreira, 25, San Carlos Apache Tribe, youth program coordinator for the San Carlos Apache Tribe Vice-Chairman.
  • Lourdes Pereira, 23, Hia-Ced/Tohono O'odham tribe and Yoeme, archivist at Hia-Ced Hemajkam LLC and program specialist for the Administration for Native Americans.
  • Matthew Holgate, 23, Diné, Navajo Nation, director of student engagement at the American Indian College.
  • Nalani Lopez, 19, San Carlos Apache tribe and Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, student at Scottsdale Community College.
  • Shelbylyn Henry, 32, Diné, Navajo Nation, lead Navajo organizer with the Indigenous organizing group Wingbeat 88.
  • Xavier Medina, 25, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, police officer with the Pascua Yaqui Police Department.

→ Read more of their conversation

PoliticsFronteras Elections Native American Affairs