By Patricia H. Kushlis
I spent November 4 working as an election official at a precinct in a nearby Pueblo. The precinct is in Santa Fe County, about 20 miles north from the city of Santa Fe. I’d worked there before – in June for the primaries. At that time, the most difficult part was finding the site itself. Google and maps on the Internet didn’t help. It’s not there.
Several years ago when I lived in Albuquerque – 60 miles south – I’d worked at two different precincts, first as a Democratic poll watcher for a hotly contested election which went into recount, later as an election official at a well to do urban precinct co-located for voting purposes with three other wealthy precincts at a church.
Those precincts were distinctive enough, but in no way did the voters at the pueblo precinct reflect your average American voter. First of all, the turnout was high, far higher than for the state and the nation as a whole, over 50% versus a statewide 37% and an even more dismal national average of 34%. What’s more, the precinct was heavily Democratic, and Democrats didn’t do themselves proud on turnout this year. So what made the difference? Why was the pueblo vote so high, and just how did these Native Americans vote? Did these registered Democrats desert the party?
More important: what lessons can be learned that might be useful for the future? Anything here that could be implemented elsewhere?
This pueblo is not poor, but it’s not wealthy either. It has a casino and farm land. The voting site, an Intergenerational Center, built some six to seven years ago on the opposite side of the road and a bit to the south of the casino , is comfortable, nicely designed, well cared for, and its energy needs are met by a large solar panel which moves with the sun.
The Center, which serves breakfast and lunch for older members of the tribe, has a well-equipped fitness center, a basketball court and a library as well as a traditional kiva fireplace in the meeting room that was used for the elections. The casino, gas station, school and other businesses help employ members of the pueblo. An organic farmer supplies the tribe with fruits and vegetables in the summer.
So who came to the polls? Everyone.
Everyone from the tribal leaders to young parents and grandparents carrying babies. I especially remember a mother with her daughter, a student clarinetist wearing a green jacket advertising the local high school band – one which, by the way, has a dynamic music teacher who has doubled the band’s size in two years. The kids were all well behaved, the parents didn’t have to wait in long lines or fret that something might happen to them if they were left at home.
A major Native American artist regaled us with stories about his family’s life in Berkeley, California – his father had also been a major artist - and tales of life in New Mexico. Vietnam Vets came to vote in well-worn military caps. A few voters needed to use magnifying sheets to read the ballots and one elderly woman came with a relative, but no one required equipment for the disabled. Very few people in the precinct had early voted – they didn’t need to.
If this precinct’s results were mirrored elsewhere in the state, there would have been a Democratic sweep including the unseating of New Mexico’s Tea Party-backed Hispanic governor, Susanna Martinez. As it was, Democratic Congressman Ben Lujan received 109 out of 109 votes, Democratic Senator Tom Udall received 103 or 104 out of 109 votes, while Martinez got only a third of the votes cast for governor. Her Democratic opponent Gary King received twice as many.
But what turned out the vote? Seems to me the Democratic leadership might learn something from this pueblo. Actually there wasn’t much mystery.
The pueblo leadership had clearly encouraged the tribe’s members to vote, but they also made it easy for them to do. For one thing, people were allowed to leave work two hours early in order to come to the polls. Seemingly out of nowhere, from 3-5:30 pm, the room filled with voters, doubling the number in no time.
Only three people were turned away, one who had failed to register to vote and two who needed to be directed to another precinct, which fortunately was not far away. Two of the five election officials were pueblo members who had worked that precinct many times before: they knew everyone and everyone knew them. The rest of us had worked elections before and could easily fit in. The precinct judge was experienced. Everyone got along well and helped out.
Voters were welcomed, not treated with the suspicion as I had experienced with Republican poll workers in Albuquerque. Kids saw the electoral process firsthand – the ballot papers, the voting machines, everything! What better way to learn mechanics of citizenship at an early age.
No, the tensions and suspicions that I had witnessed at the polls in Albuquerque didn’t exist here. There wasn’t any room, in fact, for Republican-style voter suppression. Instead the pueblo leadership worked hard to turn out the vote and people responded. Since New Mexican tribes in general feel their interests have been better served by the Democrats, they tend to vote Democratic—and that was the result at this pueblo precinct.
And here’s a well-kept secret. Working this precinct is pure pleasure.
The Center’s kitchen staff saw that we were well cared for – from coffee or tea in the morning to a hot lunch at noon. The County brought us donuts. Who could ask for anything more? So what if I have to drive 20 minutes out of town. I’d work there again any day.