Defeating Disenfranchisement

The case for a Native American Voting Rights Act
Date: 08/27/2020

How far would you go to vote on election day?


How far would you go to vote on election day? Down the street? A mile? Two, or ten? If you were part of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, of the Duckwater Reservation in rural central Nevada, you’d face a 270-mile round trip across dirt roads and treacherous, rural two-lane highways — nearly a full day’s drive through remote wilderness for residents lucky enough to have access to a vehicle. Would you still vote?

For too many Native Americans across the country, the answer is simply “I can’t.” Voting by mail isn’t an option either for those living on rural reservations like Duckwater, where residents often lack official street addresses and rely on P.O. boxes for mail. When combined with other obstacles to voting such as language barriers, lack of available voting information, hostile polling conditions, and lack of trust in local governments, it is no surprise that Native voters have up to 10 percent lower turnout than other minority groups and pitifully unequal representation in state and federal offices.

But even more damaging is the message that remote polling places convey to voting tribal members. These distances communicate, "Your vote doesn't matter. The system's not for you."

Jacqueline De Leon, attorney with the Native American Rights Fund and enrolled member of the Isleta Pueblo

Despite these existing difficulties, 25 states have passed laws further restricting voter access in recent years, largely thanks to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that overturned key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and allowed states to create new vote-limiting laws. Many of these new policies disproportionately impact Native voters, such as the recent law in Arizona (home of the second-largest Native population of any U.S. state), which made it a felony to turn in someone else’s ballot unless you are a direct relative or legal caregiver.

Recognizing that system-level change won’t be achieved without including the voices of the most marginalized and oppressed peoples, the Lakota People’s Law Project has been working to improve Native American voter turnout both in the Dakotas and nationwide. In 2018, when North Dakota’s new law requiring voter IDs to have an official street residence went into effect, we organized with ally nonprofit Four Directions and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to print more than 2,000 new tribal IDs, train Standing Rock residents to register voters, and raise a quarter million dollars for the tribe, doubling its voter turnout over the prior midterm election. While we assisted the Oglala Sioux Tribe in obtaining FEMA relief funds in the wake of a devastating bomb cyclone last year, New Mexico Rep. Ben Luján reached out to us to join a coalition of organizations advocating for a federal Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA), introduced last year by him and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM).


Now, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council has voted unanimously to partner with us, Sen. Udall and Rep. Luján to get NAVRA passed. Please join us in calling on your congressional representatives to adopt the Native American Voting Rights Act today.

If passed, a federal NAVRA would directly address the biggest obstacles Native Americans across the country face in making their voices heard through the ballot box. It will help overcome racist disenfranchisement laws in places like North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arizona. It would eliminate de-facto poll taxes by allowing voters to use tribe-issued IDs and “narrative” addresses that give a brief description of the residence location rather than a street address. Precincts would be required to honor tribes’ requests for additional polling locations, and precincts would be prohibited from moving or closing polling places without explicit tribal consent. Not only that, but tribes would be able to request language assistance in their native languages, and, should they suspect attempts to disenfranchise voters, tribes would receive help from federal observers to ensure equal access to voting services.

Significantly, this bill would also allow states with at least one federally-recognized tribe to create their own Native American Voting Task Force funded through the U.S. Department of Justice, with a mandate to comprehensively improve Native voter turnout. From poll worker hiring and training, to improving internet access, to redistricting to reduce gerrymandering, these Task Forces would be critical in addressing the distinct challenges Native voters face in each state.

Both Colorado and Washington State passed NAVRA-type laws last year, spurred in part by North Dakota’s attempts to suppress Native voters in 2018. But without federal-level legislation, it is a long and perhaps impossible journey for all 50 states to ensure Native Americans have equal voting rights when they have been intentionally and systematically disenfranchised since this nation’s founding. Not even recognized as citizens until 1924, the original inhabitants of this land weren’t able to vote in every state until 1962. To put that into perspective, 23 percent — more than 73 million people — of the U.S. population is older than the Native American franchise.

In some other places in the country folks think that if you restrict the right to vote, good things happen. We think the opposite in the state of Washington. We believe the more voices, the more wisdom. And every single chance we have we try to bring more voices into this discussion.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee

By nearly any measure, our country is in crisis. Our economy, our society, our government, and our environment are all facing some of the most severe challenges we have ever confronted — all of which have been created or exacerbated by leaders who do not truly represent the people of America. We need all voices to be heard right now, because, even in a democracy as bruised and battered as the United States in 2020, voting is power.

By taking away the vote of targeted groups, a clear message is sent: You have no power in this country. At a moment when the voting rights of tens of millions are being explicitly threatened, ensuring the right to vote for every citizen will mean that our leadership will reflect who America truly is, not just those who enable one group to hold absolute power. Whether the motivation is racial, classist, or simply political (if these three can really be separated), the outcome is the same: Silence one of our voices, and you silence all of our voices.

Please use your voice to empower the most disenfranchised by writing your congressional reps. Urge them to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act to create a more equitable future for all.

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Tell Congress: Pass the Native American Voting Rights Act!

Voting rights are under under attack in America. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Lakota People's Law Project have teamed up to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA). Co-authored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), NAVRA will ensure tribal polling places have proper voting equipment, require tribal consultation on polling site locations, and provide tribes with the resources they need to carry out full and fair elections. Join us in calling on Congress to pass NAVRA. Let's ensure that the voices of Native communities are counted and heard!