- By Seb Peltekian
On Nov. 9, 2020 the Washington Post published an article “It’s time to recognize the forgotten Americans who helped elect Joe Biden” by Katrina Phillips. In her article, Phillips argues that Native American voters may have swung the pendulum in President-elect Joe Biden’s favor in a number of states, and therefore cemented Biden’s victory nationally. This was probably true in Wisconsin, a state that Biden won by less than 21,000 votes. But while Native American voters were casting ballots, they were also facing an unprecedented health emergency due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Indian Country has been one of the hardest hit parts of the United States when it comes to the pandemic, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that Native people are hospitalized from the virus at a rate that’s 3.5 times higher than that among white people. And yet from New Mexico and Arizona, to Michigan and Wisconsin, the Native vote helped turn the tide in Biden’s favor on Nov. 3. Wisconsin’s Menominee County exemplifies both of these trends, which defined many Native American communities over the past year.
Menominee County is located in northeastern Wisconsin, about 40 miles northwest of Green Bay. It is the second smallest county in Wisconsin, land-wise, and is the county with the smallest overall population in the state. Of the 4,500 people that call Menominee County home, 82 percent belong to the Menominee tribe, according to the 2019 U.S. Census estimate.
The county essentially corresponds to the borders of the Menominee Indian Reservation. “There is no other county in the state of Wisconsin that is a reservation, the entire thing, so that’s why Menominee is always the bellwether [for the Native American vote],” said Burton Warrington, president of Indian Ave. Group (AIG), a management consulting firm, and former counselor to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.
Warrington, who is Menominee, Ho-Chunk of Wisconsin and Prairie Band Potawatomi, analyzed how Wisconsin’s tribal members voted in the 2020 election and compared it to previous presidential elections. He found that averaging the results of the vote of all the major Native American-populated wards in Wisconsin resulted in an average of 82 percent for Biden and 18 percent for Trump, which happened to be the same as the results in Menominee County.
For Menominee County, Biden voters saw a 30 percent larger turnout in November when compared to Clinton in 2016. “There were literally 300 more votes for Biden than there were for Clinton,” Warrington said. While this may not seem like a dramatic increase, it is substantial for a county with Menominee’s population.
However, the significant rise in votes did not translate to Trump, who only saw a 9 vote increase in the county between 2016 and 2020.
Eighty-two percent of the county voted for Biden during the 2020 election, making Menominee County the most solidly blue county in the state, percentage-wise. According to the Menominee County Clerk’s Office, 76 percent of the county’s registered voters cast ballots in the 2020 election.
“When they [Republicans] tried to challenge the election in Wisconsin, they challenged Madison and Milwaukee, the inner-city vote, and they challenged Menominee County,” Warrington said. “So that’s indicative of how much we were on the radar of these people who were trying to undermine the legitimacy of the election. They went out of their way to pick out this community of 1,600 votes to try to target us for voter suppression.”
But it wasn’t just in the most recent elections that Menominee County went resoundingly for Democrats, the county has long been known as a blue stronghold.
“It is difficult to determine what the voting preference was of residents located in the area now known as Menominee County prior to 1961, though it was likely Democratic,” Jeremy C. Weso, Administrative Coordinator for Menominee County and member of the Menominee tribe, said in an email to Native News Online.
Since Menominee County wasn’t established until 1961, the first presidential election where there is voting data for the county was the 1964 election that saw President Lyndon B. Johnson running against Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Menominee County, which voted to re-elect Johnson, has voted for the Democratic Party candidate in every presidential election since then. The long-standing liberal voting streak also extends to the U.S. Senate and, with the exception of the 1962 election, gubernatorial candidates (in fact, Menominee was the only one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties to go for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charles Chvala in the 1994 election).
Menominee County’s liberal political orientation does not extend to its neighboring counties. The last time any of its neighbors voted for a Democratic nominee for president was for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s first presidential run in 2008. The last time Democrats received the plurality of votes in counties bordering Menominee for U.S. Senate or gubernatorial races were 2006 and 2002, respectively. Menominee County almost always looks like a blue island floating in a sea of red.
Weso says that he suspects “there are a number of reasons why Menominee County has voted mostly Democratic since its creation.” One reason he believes that Menominee voters prefer Democratic policies over more conservative ones is due to socio-economic factors. According to County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a program partially overseen by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, Menominee County is the most economically disadvantaged county in the state.
“Many residents in the county rely upon safety net programs, such as CCDF [the Child Care and Development Fund], TANF [the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program], and SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.] The social democracy agenda of the Democratic party supports those types of safety net programs,” Weso said.
He also attributes the Native American-friendly policies of Democratic presidents, firstly President John F. Kennedy, who met with a delegation of Menominee tribal leaders during his campaign and then, once in office, invited the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to the White House. Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, also was an outspoken supporter of Native American causes during his 1968 presidential run. Subsequent presidents from the Democratic Party passed meaningful legislation that benefited Native American communities across the country, such as President Jimmy Carter’s Indian Child Welfare Act and President Bill Clinton’s passage of Executive Order 13175, a bill which requires consultation and coordination with tribal governments.
Menominee tribal members contributed to Biden’s win in Wisconsin, all while the state was experiencing some of the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic yet. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) categorized all but seven of the state’s counties as having “Critically High” infection rates during the 2020 Presidential Election. While the coronavirus is still rampant in Wisconsin, Menominee County was one of the few counties that continued to have an elevated “Critically High” categorization into mid-January. The county’s case activity has since been downgraded to “Very High.” According to the DHS, the county has had 782 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 11 deaths overall, as of Jan. 24.
Weso says that there are probably a number of factors that are contributing to such sustained rates of Covid-19 in Menominee County. More than half of the tribe lives outside of the county’s borders. “For this reason, the county experiences a lot of family and friends commuting from other jurisdictions, including viral ‘hot spots,’ to the county, and vice versa,” Weso explained.
Weso also cites lifestyle and living arrangements as likely contributing factors to higher-than-average virus cases in the largely rural county. “There are many multi-generational homes in the county, with some homes consisting of great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and children.” Due to these living arrangements, infections like the novel coronavirus can impact an entire household.
County Health Rankings & Roadmaps listed Menominee County as the Wisconsin county with the highest premature death and poor health rates per capita, in their 2020 County Health Rankings Report. It also lists the county as having the highest rates of smoking, obesity and other mitigating health factors in the state. “It is possible that a segment of [Menominee County’s] population is especially susceptible to experiencing symptoms of infection and are, therefore, tested,” Weso said.
Despite this, Weso applauds the county’s community members for taking the coronavirus seriously from the start of the outbreak. “The community did a great job limiting community spread at first. Unlike neighboring communities, most residents readily took to wearing masks and practicing other non-pharmaceutical interventions,” he said, referring to neighboring counties where officials, such as sheriff’s departments, openly denounced mask mandates and large-gathering restrictions.
“[Menominee County residents] were keenly aware the disease could hurt older generations and those that were in poor health,” Weso said. “However, once the disease arrived here, it did not take long for it to take hold. With the higher infection rate, hospitalizations and deaths of several residents, it is hoped that a renewed push by civic leaders and services providers to have the community further limit gatherings and practice non-pharmaceutical interventions will help reduce the positivity rate.”
Burton Warrington, president of the management consulting firm Indian Ave. Group, believes that the Biden campaign did a good job of getting people to vote, all while the coronavirus was surging. “There were people on the ground up here from the Biden campaign. They did a lot of outreach,” he said. “I cannot stress this enough, there were people in the communities that were getting very creative given the pandemic and not being able to knock on doors. There were people riding through town, doing caravans, beeping, things like that to raise awareness and try to get people registered [to vote] in a socially responsible way given the pandemic.”
Warrington is quick to note that Hillary Clinton did not visit Wisconsin during the height of the 2016 election cycle, in contrast to Biden. He believes that the difference between the two candidates’ performance in tribal communities showcases the crucial role that Wisconsin’s voters of Native American descent will play in future elections. “One of the reasons we did this [study] is to tell campaigns in the future, you have to be reaching out to [Native American voters], and reach out to us early. Don’t wait till the last six months. They should be on the ground investing in tribal communities,” he said.
Seb Peltekian is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. His interests include politics, cultural preservation and the rights of indigenous peoples.