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Know the West

Democracy is fraying in the West, too

Why your vote matters this election above all.


There’s no doubt 2020 has been a difficult year. The pandemic, the protests, the wildfires and smoke. And now, a fast-approaching election of the highest stakes. This year, it seems like democracy itself is up for grabs, as disinformation, census undercounts, and voter suppression have all become real threats to pluralism and representation. The Western U.S., for its part, has proven at times a staunch defender of democracy: Thanks in part to mail-in voting or to Voting-Day registrations, Colorado had the second-highest voter turnout in the country in 2018, Oregon the fifth, and Washington the seventh. But the West, too, is a place where the disadvantaged have little say in the decisions that impact them most.

A flag flies over Bigfork, Montana.

This issue explores the reaches of the West where election season matters most. In our cover story, we report from Grand Junction, Colorado, which now houses the headquarters of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to learn what’s at stake on Western public lands under the presidential candidates. What might another four years of “energy dominance” mean out here? Versus a policy of climate resilience?

In Indian Country, more disturbing questions beleaguer this election season. A botched census for tribal nations not only erodes political representation through inaccurate districting; it also leads to federal underfunding. Meanwhile, rural counties benefit from yet another kind of census chicanery: An archaic rule that counts incarcerated individuals in the counties where they’re imprisoned, not their homes, distorting demographics and inflating population figures. Still, the typically disenfranchised are working to make their voices heard. In the Nevada primary, Bernie Sanders’ campaign successfully labored to engage Latino voters. Now, in Arizona, energized young canvassers are working to get out the Latino vote.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Also in the issue, we examine political organizing. In Nevada, a decades-old network of unlikely allies celebrates the end of the Las Vegas Pipeline, while in Alaska, 11 tribes are pushing for a better environmental consultation process. In Portland, Black lives demonstrations brought violence and the deployment of federal troops, altering the politics of the city. But the clouds of tear gas were nothing to the masses of acrid smoke now smothering the city, and the West, due to a swiftly changing climate and fire regime. And still a pandemic stalks the nation, as the economy staggers along.

What are we to do amid all this mess, at a time when cynics and cowards hold sway? The answer, I hope, is obvious. Vote. For as stupefying as 2020 has been, an election year offers you a collective, amplified voice. Vote, and speak. Whether those in power want to hear you or not.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor