After the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through Indian Country in New Mexico this spring, voter turnout among Native Americans declined while the rest of the state experienced an unprecedented boost in voting during the presidential primary, according to a new report from Common Cause New Mexico.

The report shows while the rest of the state experienced a voter turnout increase of 8 percent as county clerks grappled with a record flood of absentee ballots, turnout among Native Americans declined by 1 percent compared to the 2016 primary.

The tribal communities with the lowest turnout lined up with some of the areas of the state hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turnout among Zia Pueblo members decreased 29 percent from the 2016 primary, while a number of precincts in the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation saw turnout drop 17 percent or more from the 2016 primary, according to the report.

“COVID-19 hit Native American communities disproportionately, and people faced new obstacles to voting,” said Amber Carrillo, Native American voting rights organizer for Common Cause New Mexico, in a statement.

That was particularly true in Sandoval County pueblos that consolidated polling locations or eliminated them entirely — sometimes without much notice to voters, according to the report — in an effort to contain the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus as it swept through Native American communities.

Many Native voters who tried to cast their ballot during the June 2 primary election did not know where to go in person, and although voting was considered an essential activity and exempt from lockdown requirements on the Navajo Nation, many had to travel longer distances to vote, the report said.

Carrillo said one of the biggest hurdles for Native American voters was a lack of information about where to cast a ballot.

“There just needs to be a lot more information on radio and TV,” Carrillo said. “Those are probably the primary places where tribal folks in rural [communities] are going to be engaged with.”

Voters also faced mail delays, long distances to drop off absentee ballots at post offices or post office boxes and in some cases had absentee ballots rejected due to signatures not matching or missing information. The lack of a traditional mailing address at many Native American homes, language barriers, a lack of broadband access and fewer polling locations open during the pandemic also led to a decline in voter participation during the primary, according to the report.

The report said these factors helped disenfranchise some Native American voters despite the use of absentee ballots climbing from about 1 percent during the 2016 primary to 56 percent among Native American voters in June.

“With less than 100 days until the 2020 general election, this is an urgent call for action,” the report said.

“New Mexico’s leadership has taken several commendable steps to promote safe and accessible elections, but Native American voting rights will not be upheld unless best practices … are implemented and maintained.”

For the 2020 general election, the report urged every tribal administration building have a drop box where people can deposit absentee ballots. It also calls for legislation to allow the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail at “non-conforming addresses,” audio recordings that translate and explain ballot items in tribal languages, prepaid postage on absentee ballots, counting ballots postmarked on or before Election Day and keeping in-person polling locations open on tribal lands, among other changes.

The new emergency election law that passed during the special session this year, Senate Bill 4, allows tribes to keep polling locations open even if they’re closed to the general public. The change will be beneficial for Native American voters, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Senate Bill 4 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.

Austin Weahkee, an organizer with NM Native Vote, said Thursday “the pandemic had a really strong effect on certain tribes.” But Weahkee said he’s encouraged by the decline in new coronavirus cases among tribal communities, and added Ivey-Soto’s bill went a long way in easing fears of suppressed voter turnout in the coming general election.

NM Native Vote has encouraged county clerks to create ballot drop boxes to ease ongoing worries over how turmoil within the U.S. Postal Service might affect absentee voting.

“We’re really hoping that we’re going to get some ballot drop boxes,” Weahkee said.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors did not respond to an inquiry from The New Mexican on Thursday.

Alex Curtas, a spokesman for Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office, said temporary ballot boxes likely will be in place in some locations by Election Day.

The Secretary of State’s Office soon will issue guidance to county clerks under the emergency powers clause of the new election law regarding ballot drop boxes. The state office plans to reimburse clerks for the expense of installing them, Curtas said.

He added, “People should know they can use any polling location as a drop-off location.”

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