When members of Acoma Pueblo tried to vote during the June 2 primary, some found themselves stymied the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the interest of protecting public health, the pueblo's sole polling location had been closed and non-residents were prevented by tribal police from entering pueblo boundaries. Though tribal officials said they worked with the Cibola County Clerk's Office to emphasize absentee voting, some in Acoma who had to vote in-person attempted to do so in nearby locales, including the city of Grants.
The issue is among a series of hurdles Native Americans faced on election day when trying to vote amid a pandemic that has hit Indigenous people harder than those in the rest of the state, according to political operatives who work on tribal voting issues and lawmakers whose districts include tribal communities.
The issue at Acoma and on other tribal lands was enough to spur provisions within legislation signed into law late last month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The law is meant to ensure safety and greater ease in voting for state residents and Native Americans who belong to one of New Mexico’s 23 federally recognized tribes.
While some say the changes in the legislation don’t go far enough, bill sponsors and others claim it aids in streamlining a safe election in November, when the pandemic likely will still be raging in the U.S.
“It is much better than potentially being turned away by people with guns, telling them they cannot leave their tribal borders without a valid excuse — and voting was deemed not a valid excuse for some tribal communities,” said Austin Weahkee, a member of Cochiti Pueblo and a voting rights organizer with the Native American Voters Alliance.
Some chalk up what happened in June to a breakdown in communication; others to unintended consequences of measures meant to protect Native Americans, who are being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing is clear: Many members of the Acoma Pueblo and other tribes across the state faced significant barriers when trying to vote during the 2020 primary.
Overall, Native American voters experienced a 2 percent decrease in voter turnout as the rest of the state saw historic highs in voters casting their ballots in person or by mail during an unprecedented pandemic, data from the Secretary of State’s Office shows. Across all tribes, turnout during the primary was more than 12 percentage points lower than the statewide voter turnout, which surged to 42 percent of all registered voters, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Voters in some cases faced severe mail delays, sometimes forcing people to polls after receiving their absentee ballots too late to mail them back. But in Indian Country, those problems were compounded by lockdowns, nontraditional addresses, a historic lack of infrastructure and the pandemic.
To protect public health, Gov. Brian Vallo put the 431,664-acre Acoma Pueblo on lockdown before the primary election. Because other people who live in Cibola County but aren’t part of the Acoma Pueblo also have in years past shared a polling location, the in-person site was shut down to prevent others from further spreading the virus among the Acoma people.
Tribal leaders opted for an all-mail election. Though Vallo said there were concerted outreach efforts by the pueblo’s government, not everyone got the memo.
State Sen. Clemente Sanchez, whose wife is Acoma, said his son and his son’s girlfriend were among those turned away. The Grants Democrat said he received calls from constituents angered by the lockdowns in Acoma and Laguna pueblos, especially on election day.
“I understand they’re concerned about the health of their members,” Sanchez said. “Acoma is still closed off to everybody, even tribal members. … My own grandkids who are Acoma can’t even go to their own home … because they live in Albuquerque and two of them live in Grants. And I’ve expressed that to the governor.”
Vallo defended the difficult decisions he said he made in the interest of protecting people’s lives.
“None of us were prepared for any of this, and I think that tribal communities have been as responsible as we can be to adhering to state orders and developing our own orders for the protection of our communities while also being very mindful that time doesn’t stop — that there are still things to do and get done,” Vallo said in an interview.
“And as voters in this country, we should be afforded the opportunity to develop the safest means for that voting to happen because we do have many tribal members who do take this civic responsibility quite seriously, and they do come to the polls,” Vallo continued. “We care very much about it. Our ancestors fought very hard to ensure that this right was afforded to Native American people and to Acoma.”
Between three and eight other pueblos did not have any polling locations open during the primary, said Amber Carrillo, a member of Laguna Pueblo and voting rights organizer with Common Cause New Mexico. That includes San Felipe, Zia and Jemez pueblos, she added.
The new emergency election law, Senate Bill 4, allows tribes to keep polling locations open even if they’re closed to the general public. The change will help avoid what played out at Acoma and elsewhere, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill sponsors.
The bill “takes care of the situation of the non-Natives whose polling locations [are] on Native land because they can just find any other polling location,” he said.
It also could allow clerks to automatically mail ballots to some voters in rural areas and allow for mobile ballot drop boxes. In addition, it guarantees that even if land is inaccessible, every precinct will have at least one location available for in-person voting.
But Native voting rights organizers said what happened in June reflects ongoing challenges many Native people of New Mexico face when trying to vote — particularly in light of the pandemic.
The problems are particularly acute in San Juan and McKinley counties, where more than 350 people have died and more than 6,200 novel coronavirus cases have been reported.
The severity of the pandemic made some voters wary of going to polling locations. Having to travel 10, 20 or more miles to reach a post office box to send and receive mail makes it much harder to cast an absentee ballot. That can be compounded by lockdowns.
Some county clerks also offered incorrect information about which polling locations would remain open and where, Common Cause’s Carrillo said.
Mandy Vigil, elections director for the Secretary of State’s Office, said last-minute changes in lockdown orders in San Juan County may have led to erroneous information about which polls were open, but she contends communication between clerks and tribal leaders was generally sufficient.
“There were tribal governments that made decisions to shut down to try to contain the virus, so unfortunately administrators were not able to access locations, or they were not able to open up because the building was locked down,” Vigil said.
Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said the problems seen in the primary are reflective of a long history of racism.
“Democracy has been failing in Indigenous communities for such a long time, and this is yet another example of how they have been disenfranchised and because of how all of these other systems are not in place, it continues to cause trauma and harm to these communities,” she said.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified who was manning a checkpoint at Acoma Pueblo and the purpose of the effort. Gov. Brian Vallo said pueblo police officers, not National Guard members, were enforcing COVID-19 restrictions due to the public health crisis. Police did not allow outsiders onto the pueblo, but did not attempt to restrict Acoma members from attempting to vote at a neighboring pueblo or the city of Grants.