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American Spirit: The Native American vote is being suppressed but here's what officials can do to change this

Many restrictive voting laws and discriminatory practices restrict the community from being able to vote
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over this week, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy and redemption

It was only in 1924 that Native Americans officially became citizens of the United States and the community did not have the right to vote in every state until more than three decades later. The right of Native Americans to vote in US elections was recognized in 1948 with the landmark cases Harrison v Laveen and Trujillo v Garley. Even so, they were not eligible to vote in every state until 1962, when Utah became the last state to remove formal barriers. Today, the Native American vote is being suppressed and the community is largely ignored by the Presidential candidates, including the Democratic ones. 

Many restrictive voting laws and discriminatory practices restrict the community from being able to vote. However, the community is very important -- especially to Democratic candidates -- and could be a deciding factor in swing states like Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado, and Wisconsin, according to data from Four Directions. In 2013, the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder decision eliminated the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act—the preclearance regime of sections 4(b) and 5, which required certain jurisdictions with histories of voting discrimination to obtain federal preclearance for any changes to their voting laws. This led to many Native Americans and other minority communities being disenfranchised with many new voting laws being introduced in the aftermath creating more voter requirements, thereby blocking more from the voting process.

(Getty Images)

A report by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) written after nine public hearings over two years featuring 120 witnesses, presents a stark look at the barriers faced by the nearly five million Native Americans of voting age. It also makes clear that many of them will be effectively disenfranchised if the country embraces voting by mail at the expense of in-person polling places. Among the barriers they found that restrict the Native American vote include physical and natural barriers -- Native Americans have to travel by poor or non-existent roads for long distances to reach their nearest polling stations, then there are technological barriers, homelessness and housing insecurity, and lack of resources devoted to helping get Native Americans to polling stations.  A quarter of Native Americans are poor with poverty rates approaching 40% on many reservations. In South Dakota, 51% of Native Americans fall below the poverty line. Housing instability is common, forcing multiple families to share a residence and some states don’t send ballots to households with more than one nuclear family.

Native Americans also face many barriers when it comes to voter registration due to unequal access to in-person voting. Something as simple as not having a residential address impacts all aspects of voting, including getting mail, registering to vote and complying with ever-increasing voter ID laws. Getting voter identifications requires citizens to have traditional street addresses, however, many Native Americans -- due to housing issues -- live with their relatives or other tribe members in temporary addresses. Moreover, many reservations do not have an addressing program and most people live in remote communities. Similarly, many other reservations lack home mail delivery.

The To'hajiilee polling center for the Navajo Nation (Getty Images)

While many Democrats push for mail-in ballots for the 2020 elections amid the coronavirus pandemic, others caution that in-person voting should not be replaced by mail-in ballots, but rather be complemented by them -- restricting the votes to mail-in would deter the Native American vote. In Arizona, only 18% of Native Americans receive mail at home – white voters have a rate that is 350% higher. Lacking home delivery, many Native families rely on PO boxes. Even then, though, logistical barriers abound. Rural post offices often have truncated hours and require substantial travel. Some Navajo nation residents trek 140 miles to access postal services, traveling on roads that are frequently unpaved or only passable during the early morning when mud is frozen and due to high costs and limited availability, multiple families routinely share a single PO box.

The NARF has recommendations when it comes to improving the voting access for Native Americans. One recommendation they give is that the Congress must pass the Native American Voting Rights Act or its component pieces in other legislation to ensure that Native Americans have access to political participation by starting to address the obstacles outlined in the NARF's report, Another recommendation states that state officials should make sure election activities for Native Americans are equitably funded and establish Native American task forces to ensure Native American citizens are provided equal access to registration and voting opportunities within their states. Further, tribes should encourage their members to participate in state and federal elections as a way to increase political power, reach out to and work with county officials to increase voter access for their members, and issue voter guides to de-mystify voting processes and ballot initiatives that affect the tribal community.