“Native Americans have low participation rates in federal and state elections, but the problem doesn’t lay with political passivism.” A. Smith High Country News
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.