Unprecedented push for Indigenous voter participation could shake up election

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan speaks to a small crowd about the importance of voting during a Minnesota DFL event aimed at Native American voters on Friday, Oct. 16 in Cass Lake. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

RED LAKE -- Through a seemingly unprecedented voter registration effort, 5,500 people were registered to vote in Red Lake Nation over the course of eight days, many for the first time. Thousands more were registered in Leech Lake and White Earth, with estimates of around 8,000 in total between them all.

Political campaigns have begun to target area tribal nations. Candidates from both parties have made stops or made mention.

“Native Americans for Trump” and “Native Americans for Biden” signs have been dispersed.

Rock the Vote Native Style and other organizations have put on countless events both in-person and online.

With only a few days until Election Day, all are longing for a large, often untapped voting demographic -- Minnesota’s Indigenous population. Many within this group still seem to feel frustrated, forgotten, ignored.


A coordinator for the recent registration effort in Red Lake, Mike Simpkins, said in his 30 years of experience, he’s never seen an effort like this.

Doreen Wells of Red Lake has spent the last few days driving voters back and forth from Red Lake to the Beltrami County Administration Building in Bemidji to vote early, many for the first time.

She and around 75 others from Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth have been knocking on doors since Monday, Oct. 26, asking if anyone needs a ride to the polls, and they plan to continue through Election Day.

“Drivers hope to bus 20 to 50 voters per day to auditor’s offices right up to election day,” Michael Meuers recently wrote in the Red Lake Nation News. “America’s Indigenous Peoples will be heard in 2020.”

Massive registration effort

The recent voter registration effort in Red Lake came down to a time crunch. Due to the voter registration deadline and the COVID-19 Red Lake Nation border closure, the massive voter registration drive had only eight days to complete its mission, from Oct. 5 (the day after Red Lake Nation’s borders reopened) until Oct. 13 (the final day to pre-register to vote in Minnesota).

The drive was coordinated in partnership with Four Directions, a national Native American voting rights organization. According to the Four Directions website , “With the Four Directions approach, Native voters can swing elections, accumulate power, and take their rightful place in the political landscape, thus protecting our treaties, Tribal sovereignty, and way of life.”

It is unclear how many of the 5,500 registered in Red Lake were new voters. Many who registered may have just registered to be safe, or due to a new address, Simpkins explained, but said a minimum of 4,000 were likely new voters, at least to non-tribal elections.

The leadership team of the voter registration drive was Bret Healy of Four Directions, Simpkins, and Red Lake Supervisors Tori Lussier and Wells. Simpkins and Meuers credited the drive’s success to the efforts of scores of Red Lake member canvassers who were recruited to knock on doors and register voters, with as many as 30-50 working at any given time.


The effort was non-partisan and canvassers were forbidden from discussing issues or candidates, Simpkins said.

Simpkins described the growth as exponential, with just a few voters registered the first day, then a few hundred, then around 1,000 a day for the last few days, landing at a total of 5,500. Looking at the census described count of Red Lake’s population of 5,873, this number seems unbelievable. Organizers of the drive said this just proves how often tribal nations are undercounted.

“The numbers of new registrants give further evidence that Indigenous Americans have been notoriously undercounted in census data over several decades,” Meuers wrote in the Red Lake Nation News.

Simpkins, who also volunteered with the census in Red Lake this summer, attested to this.

Myriad of engagement events

In-person and online, socially distant outdoor events, demonstrations, collaboration with Native Roots Radio, panels and webinars have all taken place over the last few months, all with an aim of increasing voter turnout.

Even seemingly apolitical events, such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration in Bemidji, provided opportunities to register to vote. Back in September, two large events in one weekend sought to draw out an Indigenous vote.

Much of the push seems geared toward younger, inexperienced voters. According to Wells, the largest group of new registrations were from 18 to 45. “They’ve just had it. They’re motivated,” she said.

In a recent Rock the Native Vote and MN350 webinar event , panelists brainstormed ideas to get more people involved in politics and active in their communities.


Organizations Rock the Vote Native Style and MN350 hosted a virtual panel on Thursday to discuss political engagement, voter participation and building collective power in Indigenous communities across Minnesota. Facebook screenshot.

“It’s hard to get people involved when they’re struggling just to get by everyday,” Nancy Beaulieu from Leech Lake said. “Help people get to the polls, take them to the city council meeting with you and teach them, that’s really important right now.”

Panelists also addressed the frustration disenfranchised voters may feel.

“The way that I’ve been having conversations about voting with people this election cycle is that it’s a stepping stone to create the conditions that we want to win bigger things," MN350 Training Director Nicole Ektnitphong said. “We know the electoral politics will not save us, but we have to create the conditions to allow us to win certain policies for our communities.”

Barriers to voting can make the experience much more difficult for Indigenous voters. Lack of transportation or internet access, or time to vote can be issues. Feelings of frustration and a lack of trust can also play a role. And the coronavirus pandemic didn’t make it any easier.

Sparked by frustration

Simpkins believes a lot of this recent push has come out of frustration with racism as a whole and comments from elected officials.

Both President Trump and Joe Biden have released plans to support tribal nations. But Simpkins said he believes comments from Trump during his Bemidji rally negated his actions, and he feels the rally, the Beltrami County refugee vote that took place in January, and actions like the recently defaced border sign in Red Lake , have acted as a political spark, he said, encouraging more Indigenous voters to get involved.

Simpkins explained that during one of his and Wells’ initial trips from Red Lake to the Beltrami County Auditor’s office, they and a group of 12 Red Lakers who had never voted outside of tribal elections received some hateful looks. Wells told Simpkins it happens in town all the time.

Simpkins explained out of the 20 people in the office, maybe three were hostile, but three is all it takes.

“It doesn’t take 20 out of 20 for underrepresented people to feel like they’re being treated less than,” he said.

'A question of who controls the change'

A total of 5,500 mostly new voters coming out of Red Lake alone is certainly enough to shake up some legislative races.

Minnesota’s Indigenous population comprises a small but important voter demographic, one that is often untapped. Indigenous people are 1.1% of the state’s population -- around 59,000 people according to the last census, meaning, likely much higher -- and nearly one-third of them are not registered to vote. Information from the National Congress of American Indians places the number of Indigenous people of voting age in Minnesota as 78,000.

Simpkins said if the voter turnout is even close to the amount of registrants, it will make an impact.

“If they put together a big voting block, and they have the ability to swing elections, then politicians have to listen to them. Government officials have to listen to them, and they have to take notice,” he said. “It will make a huge difference."

State legislative races are often decided by small margins, so the new registrations could make a difference if those that registered turn up to the polls. Minnesota House District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, won his last race by only 11 votes, something brought up a few times at a Native American centric campaign stop on behalf of Democratic candidates made by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan in Cass Lake on Oct. 16.

In a recent issue of the Circle , a Native American news source, activist and former Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke attested to this.

“A surge in Native voting will change the political landscape of the North,” she wrote. “Vote because there are Native people running for senate, house, city councils and county commissioner positions in Minnesota. And those people can bring a Native voice to the state. And yet some of those native people, despite being tribal members do not always represent Native interests. So maybe let’s vote on records and merits. Let’s remember that change can happen. It’s inevitable. It’s a question of who controls the change.”

Simpkins echoed this.

“They do have the ability -- between Alan Roy and Rita Albrecht -- of putting the Minnesota Senate into Democratic control if their voting patterns hold up,” Simpkins said of Native American voters. “Again, I don’t know how they’re going to vote, but I know how they voted in the past. I don’t know how they’ll vote this year, I have no idea.”

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
What To Read Next
Mike Clemens, a farmer from Wimbledon, North Dakota, was literally (and figuratively) “blown away,” when his equipment shed collapsed under a snow load.