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NCAI: Access to Elections and Voter Registration a ‘Civic Emergency’

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As every election year begins, the lack of access to voting for American Indians and within Indian country becomes much more noticeable. A dilemma many are looking to fix as the Native vote continues to grow and be a factor in states like South Dakota or Montana. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has even claimed the situation a “civic emergency” and at the organizations mid-year conference that just ended in Lincoln, Nebraska proposed a plan for immediate action.

Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, shared solutions during the conference that could increase access to the ballot box and voter registration for many American Indian and Alaska Native voters. According to a NCAI press release, Keel is asking that Indian Health Service facilities be added to the federal and state government service providers list as locations for voter registration sites. He also called for a grassroots voter registration push.

“Over the last century since securing our rightful place at the ballot box, Native people have remained one of the most disenfranchised group of voters in the United States. Today as a result, only two out of every five eligible American Indian and Alaska Native voters are not registered to vote, in 2008 over 1 million eligible Native voters were unregistered,” Keel said in the release. “This should be considered a civic emergency – we should all be concerned: American Indians and Alaska Natives, tribal governments, state and federal governments, ordinary citizens. Today I’m offering a set of concrete actions we can take now to change this situation.”

Earlier this year, Keel called for the largest turnout in history for Native voters while making the annual NCAI State of Indian Nations Address. During the mid-year conference he followed those words up with a plan. According to the release, Keel focused his remarks at the conference on everyday citizens to help register voters and encourage Indian country to participate in Native Vote – NCAI’s national non-partisan campaign. He also shared three opportunities to allow the Native voices to be heard in 2012 and into the future.

The first opportunity came as Keel announced a new partnership with Rock the Vote, a national non-profit that will allow Native Vote to provide resources for online voter registration through The other have of the announcement included the unveiling of “Rock the Native Vote Week to be held September 24 – 28 that coincides with National Voter Registration day on September 25. According to the release the week will be filled with discussions and interaction at tribal schools and Native youth programs across the country in a range of civics education, including a tribal specific supplement to Rock the Vote’s Democracy Day class. Local Boys and Girls Clubs of America will help educate Native youth about civic engagement and the importance of voting.

The second opportunity Keel mentioned was the “Tools for All’ partnership that was initiated with State Voices – a national civic engagement network. According to the release this partnership will offer a “chance for tribes to access voter outreach tools that can identify tribal members who need to register and encourage all tribal citizens to make their voice heard.”

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“Finally and most importantly, our federal and state government partners should provide the same voter registration services offered in other government facilities. That’s why today I’m calling for state election officials to work with tribes and the federal government to ensure tribal citizens are offered the chance to vote when they visit any Indian Health Service facility,” stated Keel.

Keel referred to a recently released report by D?mos, a multi-issue national organization, titled Ensuring Access to the Ballot for American Indians & Alaska Natives: New Solutions to Strengthen American Democracy. The report outlines Native voter disenfranchisement and proposes the use of IHS facilities as logical sites for voter registration. It states, “Appropriate IHS facilities should be designated as official voter registration agencies along the same lines as state based public assistance agencies are now designated under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).”

The final item that Keel addressed was a letter he is sending to every IHS facility along with a copy of the report. The release shared a portion of Keel letter which states, “The Indian Health Service is a key agency in delivering on the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribes. As outlined in the report, IHS facilities, conveniently and centrally located in many tribal communities, are ideal voter registration sites. Joining other federal and state agencies in offering this service to clients will make a large impact in tribal communities, in the national Native Vote and in furthering the fulfillment of the federal trust responsibility.”

With organization backing like NCAI and a host of tribal leaders supporting campaigns, come November Indian country may just see the largest Native voter turnout in history.

* Download Ensuring Access to the Ballot for American Indians & Alaska Natives: New Solutions to Strengthen American Democracy.

President Jefferson Keel final remarks as delivered.