Sometimes progress is slow. That much is clear when you consider Native Americans could not vote in New Mexico until 1948. That’s less than 70 years ago.
Natives have faced an uphill battle when it comes to gaining access to the voting booth since the dawn of New Mexico’s statehood. Written in 1912, the state’s Constitution didn’t merely fail to provide voting rights to Native Americans — it explicitly prohibited them.
Today Native Americans have the right to vote, but the historical barriers to voting have left a lasting imprint, as evidenced by the fact that voter turnout among Native American populations is typically lower than it is for the rest of the electorate.
There are many reasons for the low turnout numbers. For starters, there is a lack of voter registration opportunities in tribal communities. There has been a lack of commitment to educating Native American voters that directly diminishes their willingness to participate in the electoral process. The list goes on and on. But that’s all about to change.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver recently convened her Native American Voting Task Force. The goal of the Native American Voting Task Force is to boost voter registration, education and election participation in tribal communities throughout the state.
The Native American Voting Task Force is largely based on House Memorial 115, “Native American Voting Info Task Force,” that I sponsored in the 2017 legislative session, which passed the House with unanimous, bipartisan support. Unfortunately, my memorial never made it to the Senate floor before the session ended.
Secretary Toulouse Oliver was willing to pick up the ball and run with it so our efforts wouldn’t be in vain. The Native American Voting Task Force, which met for the first time last month, is made up of representatives from the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, the 19 pueblos and a Native American who resides in an urban area.
This diverse group will provide valuable insights to Secretary Toulouse Oliver and her staff, ensuring that the subsequent policies and procedures the secretary enacts will be sensitive to the needs of our Native population.
After speaking with several members of the Native American Voting Task Force at an Interim Indian Affairs Committee meeting last week, I am confident that even more Native Americans will show up to the polls to make their voices heard once this group has had the opportunity to implement some of their plans. Through their work, we will have a government that is more representative of the interests and values of Native Americans in New Mexico.
The Native American Voting Task Force is a step in the right direction to assist with correcting the wrongs that have kept Native Americans from the voting booth for so long.
State Rep. Derrick J. Lente is a Democrat from District 65, representing Sandia Pueblo.