On Oct. 10, less than a month before the 2018 midterm general election, the Supreme Court upheld North Dakota’s voter ID law that requires people to show an ID with a physical street address before they could vote. But a street address is something many Natives who live on reservations don’t have; they instead receive mail at a post office box.
As a result of the decision, local tribes scrambled to issue new IDs with street addresses—often drawing from local 911 directories to get one—to ensure Native Americans could cast their votes.
Despite what appeared to be a blatant attempt to disenfranchise Native voters, two of the state’s counties with the highest population of Native Americans managed to show up to the polls in the highest turnout since 2008, according to preliminary results released by North Dakota’s Secretary of State.
But North Dakota’s law is just one of several across the U.S. that have been enacted in past years that had the effect of reducing minority voting. For that reason, Myrna Pérez, deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, argues this should be an issue that affects everyone concerned with fair voting, not just minority groups.
A concerted effort is needed to preserve voting rights, she said, and that’s done through the ballot box.
“We, as a country, have not fulfilled our duty and promise to many Native American communities in terms of making voting free, fair, and accessible,” Pérez said.
Indian country has faced voting barriers long before the 2018 midterms. The 15th Amendment declared in 1869 that no citizen can be denied the right to vote based on their race, but Native Americans were not considered citizens until 1924.
Even afterward, states found many ways to block Native Americans from voting.
For instance, New Mexico and Utah had said Native people weren’t residents of the state, making them ineligible to vote. The laws remained on the books until 1957 in Utah and 1962 in New Mexico.
More recently, Natives still face unique struggles when it comes to voting. The Native American Voting Rights Coalition, a nonpartisan alliance of grassroots organizations, activists, and scholars, held hearings across the country in 2017 to address those struggles.
Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, the parent organization of the coalition, helped conduct these hearings. She found that Natives encountered many more barriers than the rest of the voting population.
Many Natives living on reservations have to travel long distances to reach a polling station. De León said that some people have to drive up to 150 miles to vote.
While the distance alone is problematic, travel also requires significant resources.
The community has an unemployment rate of 26.2 percent, the highest of all ethnic groups; many Native Americans on the reservation simply don’t have the money to buy a car. Even if they have access to a vehicle, the long drive to poll sites requires money for gas that many don’t have the luxury of sacrificing.
The lack of polling stations on reservations conveys a discouraging message to Natives, too.
“Another thing about the distances is what it communicates to the community,” De León said. “That their votes are not prioritized. That they’re not wanted because voting hasn’t been made accessible to their communities.”
Methods like mail-in ballots or online registration that aim to make voting easier for citizens don’t provide much help for Natives, either.
Candidates haven’t done much to reach out to people on reservations.
According to De León, most tribal members on reservation don’t have access to broadband internet, making online registration difficult. P.O. boxes, in addition to not being tied to a street address, often are shared and located far from where people actually live.
“Vote by mail doesn’t work for Native communities,” De León said.
The hearings also revealed outright intimidation at the polls.
De León said that some people reported rooms falling silent when they’d enter polling locations and how they’d receive stares as they walked in. In some instances, police would park outside reservations on Election Day to check the plates of outgoing tribal members, which De León said had “a chilling effect on the vote.”
A report from the public policy organization Demos found that voter turnout for Native Americans remains 5 to 14 percent below the rate of other ethnic groups.
The report also states that a general mistrust among Native Americans of the federal government plays a role in low voter turnout, and that candidates haven’t done much to reach out to people on reservations.
“Unsurprisingly, after years and years of neglect, Native Americans aren’t voting,” De León, said. “A lot of that has to do with the feeling like their vote is not going to result in any change.”
However, it’s becoming clear to many Native people that participation in nontribal elections is necessary if they’re going to protect their rights. The rise of litigation, such as a lawsuit brought by the Spirit Lake Tribe against North Dakota over the new voting rules, shows a growing passion in preserving voting rights.
While successful litigation can create the legal protection needed, local leaders are just as responsible for rallying the Native voice. “Passing resolutions, urging people to vote, allocating tribal resources to provide transportation to the polls, tribal leadership issuing voter guides—that’d be helpful,” De León said.
One person doing this is Jason Chavez, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. Chavez worked with the Pima County Recorder as a liaison for the reservation during the 2014 midterm election.
Chavez’s efforts helped to establish mobile early voting sites on the reservation. After he spent two weeks at the mobile sites, voter turnout in his community shot up 300 percent.
“Really, what it boils down to is having a presence on the reservation, and developing a relationship with voters, and allowing for those extra opportunities for participation,” Chavez said.
The National Congress of American Indians is one organization that has worked to fill voter participation gaps on a national level.
The National Congress has put voting rights at the forefront of its efforts since its inception in 1944. The group’s initiative has grown into a national campaign now referred to as Native Vote, which focuses on voter outreach through community leadership.
The National Congress trains Native American volunteers to work in their own tribal communities to encourage voting, educate voters on candidates, and hold registration drives.
“This program is really led by the grassroots leadership and tribal leadership,” said Rani Williams, the congress’ legal fellow.
Williams said it’s important to have someone from the community doing the work because they’re the ones who know what their people need most. The National Congress provides the resources and training coordinators need, but beyond that it’s up to those community leaders to motivate their fellow tribal members to vote.
In the 2004 presidential race, many Native communities put significant effort into voter mobilization for the first time. The same Demos report showed that voting had increased by 50 to 150 percent in Native communities.
Other research featured in the Demos report analyzed the effect of voter mobilization in the same elections. The now-defunct First Americans Education Project found a positive relationship between local, targeted efforts for mobilization and an increase in voter participation.
And, when Natives have been given motivation to show up to the polls, they’ve shown significant political power.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana credited his victory in his 2006 race to Native American voters. The Native vote propelled Tester to yet another victory in this year’s election. Data from the Montana Secretary of State’s office reported that counties with a high population of Natives cast 60 percent of their ballots for Tester.
Similarly, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp won in the 2012 election by only 3,000 votes. Many of those critical votes came from Sioux County, which lies entirely within the Standing Rock Reservation, and Rolette County, home to the Turtle Mountain Reservation, where more than 80 percent of votes were cast in her favor. (Heitkamp also won both counties in the 2018 election, but lost the state by more than 35,000 votes.)
Pérez said that “voting is the formal way we solve political differences,” which includes addressing disenfranchisement of any minority group.
While tribes have an obligation to step up when it comes to voter mobilization, it’s not something that they alone must solve. Pérez said all voters must ensure that their representatives enact pro-voter laws.
Voting rights are not just a Native problem, they’re an American problem—one that requires everyone to solve it.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Pérez said.
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