Native Americans warn against voter suppression in western states

Native American rights groups say a slew of new Republican-backed bills that restrict or limit voter registration and mail-in voting practices threaten to disenfranchise thousands of tribal citizens.

Many laws passed in recent years, driven by Republicans who used former President Trump’s misrepresentations about his 2020 loss as cover for a campaign against broader voter access, will disproportionately impact Native American voters. , these groups say, because these voters are disproportionately older, rural and poor.

“Structural barriers impact the ability of Native people to vote,” said Allison Neswood, an attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “We felt that Indigenous issues were both misunderstood and overlooked at the state level, even by suffrage advocates, because our populations can be small.”

Neswood’s group, along with the ACLU and Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic, led a challenge to two Montana laws passed by the Republican-dominated legislature earlier this year they say would impact directly on the Native American vote.

One measure would have ended same-day voter registration. Another sought to prevent organizations from paying employees or contractors to collect mail-in ballots. Earlier this month, a state court blocked both measures.

In other states, Republican legislatures have passed measures requiring photo ID to vote. The list of acceptable documents they have adopted includes tribal government identifications – although these documents are not always accompanied by photographs, and many Native Americans living in rural areas rely on post office boxes, as their homes do not have no regular addresses.

Such a bill was passed in Arizona this year, tightening identification requirements.

“Our tribal ID probably won’t meet the requirements set out in the bill because not all tribal IDs have photos or we don’t have a physical address,” the rep said. of Arizona State, Navajo Nation member Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren (D). “I feel directly attacked when you see things like that.”

The Native American Rights Fund is considering legal action against a new round of bills that require voters to show proof of citizenship to register. Although Native Americans have been in the United States for far longer than there have been in the United States, those born outside of hospitals – a common occurrence for older generations – may not have birth certificate.

Many, like Blackwater-Nygren’s grandmother, don’t know their actual date of birth or have different sets of documents showing different dates of birth.

“When I tell these stories, when I explain to lawmakers, especially members of the GOP, I’m told they know when they were born and it’s ridiculous that anyone doesn’t know what day they were born,” said Blackwater-Nygren.

The common thread running through many of the restrictions on Native American voters is the poverty that dominates the mostly rural tribal lands, many of which are miles away not just from government facilities but even from paved roads.

“Communities near my home live 14, 15 miles off the paved highway,” Blackwater-Nygren said. “Even just driving around town is a big deal.”

Those who live so far from modern infrastructure are less likely to have access to personal transport, let alone virtually non-existent public transport. This, in itself, is an obstacle to access to a ballot box.

“Poverty really costs people a lot. It means people are using a higher percentage of their financial, emotional and mental resources just for the basics,” Neswood said. “It can make voting requirements disproportionately difficult just not worth it for some people.”

The Biden administration last month issued recommendations to state and local agencies aimed at increasing Native American voter turnout. Several of the recommendations highlighted the importance of access to postal service routes and even in-person polling stations, which are lacking in many rural communities.

A House Administration Committee report released last July found that a lack of available polling places was likely to have a disproportionate impact on Native American voters. Since 2012, more than 1,600 polling stations have been closed, according to the report.

Lack of access to those roads and polling places is what makes ballot collection — which critics derisively call “ballot harvesting” — so crucial, she said.

Recent rounds of redistricting have consolidated or eliminated districts that could reasonably expect to elect Native American representatives, particularly in the state legislatures of North Dakota and South Dakota, where the NARF is pursuing legal challenges. Neswood said his group is also considering challenging the Arizona lines.

Native American voters represent only a few tens of thousands of votes in many states. But in places like Arizona, which President Biden won with just 11,000 votes, their turnout can tip the scales.

“We know that tens of thousands of Navajo voters voted very heavily Democratic in the last election,” Blackwater-Nygren said. “And we know that makes a difference in a state like Arizona.”

Nohemi M. Moore