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Native American tribes in Texas rally to increase voter turnout

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A long line forms outside the Randall's Grocery Store in West Lake Hills during Super Tuesday voting in March. As the general election nears, Native American tribes in Texas are trying to increase voting turnout among their members. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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Cecelia Flores knows that voting turnout among her fellow Alabama-Coushatta Tribe members in East Texas has traditionally been low.

The chairperson for the federally recognized tribe said most people in her community don’t see how the federal government impacts what they prioritize most: work and livelihood.

Then, an electronic bingo facility run by the tribe, which employs over 700 locals, was threatened with being forced to close when conflicting federal laws raised questions about whether the game could be offered there. A federal bill was filed in July 2019 to protect the facility, but was opposed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who is up for reelection in November.

Now, Flores said she and other members of the Tribal Council are hoping to increase tribe members’ voter participation in hopes that Texans in Congress take the tribe’s issues more seriously — and support legislation they need.

“We're doing a lot more voter education and letting people know that they do have a voice and that these issues that are out there on the table now,” said Flores, who is also a U.S. Air Force veteran. “We can have some influence if we have a voice in our voting and who our representatives are in Congress and at the state level.”

Nationally, voter turnout rate among Native American and Alaska Native voters is lower than other racial and ethnic groups by 1 to 10 percentage points. According to the 2010 Census, there were 315,000 people who identified as American Indians or Alaska Natives in Texas.

Other Native American groups, like San Antonio-based American Indians in Texas, are also working toward increased voter participation.

Karla Aguilar, the developmental director for the group, said they hope to increase voter turnout among the 30,000 Native Americans she said live in Bexar County.

On Tuesday, the group held a get-out-the-vote parade in the area and while Aguilar said she spoke to many who were excited to vote, she still worries about the community following through on Election Day.

One barrier, she said, is lack of education on the subject.

“In a practical sense, there's no civics education that takes place in a substantial way to explain what these functions of our government do,” Aguilar said. “Who knows what the Texas Railroad Commissioner actually does? Who knows what the comptroller actually does? So there's, in general, there's a huge gap of civic education in our communities across the board.”

Overall mistrust of the government and a history of erasure of indigenous people also contribute to the lack of participation, Aguilar said. Through events like the parade, Aguilar said the group hopes to make the democratic process more visible to Native Americans.

“We're talking specifically to the heart of our Native American community, to remind them that democracy is indigenous, and that it only works when we participate and that's the core message that we're getting across,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar said the group hopes to not only increase visibility on issues like the lack of a Texas Indian commission and climate change, but also create conversations centered around Native Americans.

“The issues that are of interest to the vast majority of our community are the same as everybody else: education, health care, employment, housing ... and food security,” Aguilar said. “It's all the same, but the way that we don't see conversations specific to Native Americans about these issues, because our approach is culturally different.”

Disclosure: Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.