5 obstacles for Native voters in the November midterms

Native Americans have low participation rates in federal and state elections, but the problem doesn’t lay with political passivism.

 

A man walks by a mural in Albuquerque that promotes voter rights for Native Americans and other minority groups.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In November, voters will see a record number of Native American candidates on the ballot running for all areas of government; state legislatures, governorships and Congressional seats. Today, just 81 Native Americans hold office in state legislatures across the U.S. No Native women or Alaska Natives have ever held Congressional office, but that could change this year, with five Native women running for U.S. House, and many more on a state level nationwide. In Western states, Native voters make up significant voting blocs. The Indigenous voting population is also young and growing, and with that comes political potential.

Still, Native American turnout in the 2012 election was low, between 5 and 15 percent lower than other groups depending on the location. While Native Americans gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1924, state elections didn’t come until later. Utah was among the last states to allow Native Americans to participate in state elections, beginning in 1956. Long after that, Native Americans still face roadblocks like inequitable voter identification laws. Here are five issues tribal citizens face in casting their votes:

1. Non-traditional mailing addresses and distance to in-person voting

A high number of tribal members live in rural areas far from in-person voting locations, meaning they rely on mail-in ballots. But while those are gaining popularity in some states, they present a myriad of problems for tribal citizens who don’t have mailing addresses, live far from their P.O. boxes and check them irregularly, or who move often. That has heavy impacts on turnout: In a series of hearings, the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, a non-partisan Native rights organization, found that many who were supposed to vote by mail never received a ballot.

 

2. Limited English proficiency and inadequate translation services

Language barriers in Native communities can lead to lower turnouts in elections, especially if voters do not receive adequate translation services. Under the Voting Rights Act, election information must be translated to the Native language where there are high concentrations of people who only speak an Indigenous language, like in Alaska, New Mexico and Arizona. Nationally, the rate of those unable to read or write in English is 1.31 percent, but that number goes up to 40 percent in parts of Alaska that speak primarily Aleut, and 25 percent in Navajo-dominant portions of Arizona, making ballots only in English a roadblock to casting an informed vote.

 

3. Restrictive election laws

A number of election laws have effects on people’s ability to participate in elections. That played out this last week when the Supreme Court approved voter identification laws in North Dakota, requiring a street address, not a P.O. box, be displayed on a voter’s ID. But tribal IDs don’t always include addresses, and many tribal citizens, who may live in remote areas with no mail service or have impermanent living situations, use P.O. boxes instead of permanent addresses.

In the Montana midterms this November, voters will decide on ‘ballot harvesting bans,’ which forbid the collection of early ballots by someone who is not a relative or an elections worker. Though ostensibly to keep from ballot tampering, others argue it’s an attempt to inconvenience people unable to cast ballots themselves. Arizona passed a similar ban in 2016, although it is currently being challenged in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

4. Voter purges

In February, the Navajo Nation purged 52,000 voters from their rolls who did not vote in the 2016 and 2014 elections. County governments have also purged voters from their rolls, meaning voters are no longer registered and cannot vote, such as Apache County in Arizona in 2012. In that case, according to the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, the county purged 500 Navajo voters because their addresses were deemed “too obscure.” “Once purged, many Native voters won’t vote again in non-tribal elections,” said James Tucker, an attorney with the coalition in Senate testimony in July. “Effectively, a voter purge can result in permanent disenfranchisement.” 

5. Unequal internet access

The broadband disparity in Indian Country also affects election turnout. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 41 percent of tribal citizens living on tribal lands in the U.S. don’t have access to high-speed internet. In some rural areas, that number jumps to 68 percent. That impacts online voter registration, as well as information gathering about candidates and ballot measures. In Nevada, a measure on the ballot this fall could help with issues of registration, proposing that when people register at the DMV, they would be automatically registered to vote. Such laws already exist in Oregon and California.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that only Montana will vote on a ballot harvesting ban in November; Arizonans passed a ban in 2016 which is currently being challenged in court. 

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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