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Researching Native Student Voting Habits

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

Headshot of Kamryn Yanchick
Kamryn Yanchick

Kamryn Yanchick, a student at the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Campus Vote Project (CVP) Research Collective member, recently conducted a survey-based study attempting to identify the barriers and motivators to voting among native student populations.

The study’s methodology included a survey evaluating barriers and motivators to voting for native students in non-tribal elections, i.e., federal, state, and local elections. The survey received 86 responses from native students in four Oklahoma Universities- three with minority native populations and one tribal university.

The first part of the survey asked respondents to evaluate the impact of various barriers to voting in non-tribal elections on a scale of 1 (not at all) - 5 (a great deal). Similarly, in the second portion of the survey, respondents were asked to evaluate various motivators for voting. Overall, the average ranking of the different motivating factors was 3.98, indicating that motivators (on average) have “quite a bit” of impact on how easy or desirable it is to vote. The highest ranking individual motivators were: (1) having candidates with good track records on Native issues on the ballot, (2) having native candidates on the ballot, and (3) feeling like voting makes an impact on the community.

On the other hand, the average ranking of the different barriers to voting was 2.6, falling somewhere between having a “slight” and “some” impact. The most common barriers were: (1) feeling like the candidates do not have the best interests of the community in mind, (2) a lack of trust in government, (3) feeling uninformed about issues and/or candidates, (4) being busy with classes and work, and (5) feeling like voting will not make a difference.

Natives Vote logo in dark blue with white and blue text

Additionally, a one-hour focus group of twelve OU native students from various tribal affiliations was conducted, emphasizing finding unique barriers/motivators surrounding tribal elections. Among the students in the group, only around 25% reported participating in tribal elections, while approximately 67% said they had participated in non-tribal elections. Common barriers to tribal elections cited among participants included: (1) difficulties accessing political and electoral information, (2) lack of tribal enrollment and voter eligibility, (3) lack of trust in tribal politicals, (4) geographic and/or cultural distance from the community, (5) lack of time and resources.

A notable difference between the barriers that arose for non-tribal and tribal elections was tribal politics may often feel more personal and impactful- which can either motivate or discourage participation. Furthermore, barriers to non-tribal elections tended to become amplified when it came to tribal elections, adding to the already existing unique barriers.

Furthermore, Kamryn’s research prioritized finding solutions and ways to reduce the barriers to voting for native students and boost opportunities for motivating factors. Study responses showed that visibility matters- on the ballot and within communities. Further, election organizers must be aware of the cultural context surrounding the native vote and election participation. Additionally, students have limited time, meaning voting and access to accurate voting information needs to be quick and easy. Finally, responses highlighted the importance of increased government transparency and intentional outreach from government officials beyond identifying issues.

Overall, many things motivate native students toward or away from the vote, and the impact of these factors varies widely across age groups, voter frequency, and institutions; however, across all groups, students pointed to a lack of representation in the political system and the logistical inconvenience of voting as barriers.

Future research should focus on native students who are less likely to participate in the electoral system than those who chose to respond to this study. Additionally, research on native student groups from institutions outside Oklahoma, as well as at community colleges, private institutions, and Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institutions (NASNTIs), can help create a fuller understanding of the different barriers and motivators influencing the native student vote.


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