According to the most recent Census data, gathered in 2010, 19.3 percent of Americans reside in rural areas. In fifteen states, more than fifty percent of the population lives in an area designated “rural” by the U.S. Census Bureau. (Note: “To qualify as an urban area [for census purposes], the territory identified according to criteria must encompass at least 2,500 people, at least 1,500 of which reside outside institutional group quarters. . . . ‘Rural’ encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.”) While the results of the latest election cycle have sparked a renewed interest in rural America (see, e.g., articles from major news outlets like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post), historical coverage of those outside the urban norm has been decidedly sparse. Often, when attention is paid to rural places and populations, it is demonstrative of “nostalgia for our rural past,” rather than cognizance of rural present. In 2016, Tom Vilsack, the then-Secretary of Agriculture, summed up public and political interest in rural America with the comment: “I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place. . . . because people don’t pay attention to this part of the country.” Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your political affiliations), the 2016 election cycle did nothing if not effectively prove that rural America is not without political influence—as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s loss despite winning nearly 90 percent of the vote in urban cores.
If voting patterns in rural America have signaled a recoup of relevance, it is notable that the population receiving national scrutiny—the population now cashing in on its political capital—represents only a particular segment of the rural electorate. As noted in a recent post on this blog, the most popular question in America over the past month has arguably been: Who voted for Donald Trump? And news media sources have been quick to provide answers: anti-establishment voters, “rural red-county” evangelicals, and—overwhelmingly—the white, working class. Missing from this entire discussion are the roughly 3,432,000 Native American voters registered and eligible to vote in the United States.* Previous blog posts have discussed the Native vote with respect to the 2008 national election and the 2014 Senate races, but aAs I’ve waded through the post-election coverage the past few weeks, I wondered, where was the Native vote in 2016?
*66 percent of the total American Indian and Alaska Natives populations—5.2 million people by 2010 Census measures—are eligible and registered to vote.
Like many other minority groups, “Natives,” the term used by the Carsey Institute to refer to those who self-identify as American Indians or Alaska Natives, are often categorized under broad social and economic labels that fail to account for the diversity of cultural experiences and heritages that color the population. In the case of Natives, “Native voices are often grouped with all rural residents in portrayals of rural places.” To be fair, there is overlap in both the demographic and cultural predilections of Natives and non-Native rural populations.
A comparison between surveys conducted by the Carsey Institute in Native and non-Native rural communities is illustrative:
On community life:
- A majority of rural residents describe their community as cohesive and neighborly, and local involvement in community groups and organizations is high (i.e., “Rural Americans are joiners”)
- More than half of Natives consider daily community life integral to their identity, and exhibit “strong family attachment” and deep “familial roots” in their communities
- In rural locales (with exceptions in areas experiencing resource-based decline and in chronically poor communities), natural beauty is considered “very important” with respect to living decisions, and 70 percent of rural respondents participate in hunting
- Two-thirds of Natives cite natural beauty as a reason to remain in their communities, and 73 percent of Natives indicate hunting, gathering, and harvesting is very important to their way of life
- Most of the rural population (i.e., “[a]lmost everyone”) is concerned about a lack of job opportunity, and only 40 percent of rural respondents work full-time
- Eighty-five percent of Natives are concerned about a lack of job opportunity, and across regions, a majority of Natives consider it the “most important” concern their community faces
But despite their similarities, Natives also face unique challenges that are simply not shared by most of rural America. The most notable is disenfranchisement. Though the Indian Citizenship Act extended voting rights to Natives in 1924, voting restrictions were not eliminated in every state until as late as 1970 (Colorado was one of the last states to remove literacy test requirements for Natives). The combination of historical discrimination and existing access obstacles has meant that Natives continue to have some of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. In the most recent national election, Natives found themselves subject in many places to discriminatory ballot-collection laws, “questionable poll judge behavior,” and a dearth of polling sites. In Arizona, for example, a state with the largest concentrated Navajo population, voters waited over five hours to cast their ballots—and that’s after a commute of four hours to even reach the nearest polling station from the Navajo Nation reservation.
It would seem that Natives have been missing from the 2016 election discourse not (only) because of their negligible impact, but—heartbreakingly—because they continue to be functionally excluded in far too many places.