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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The Biden administration has released an interagency steering group report on Native American voting rights. The 54-page report, released Thursday, thoroughly chronicles the various issues Indigenous communities face when voting.

The report recommends specific actions for policy makers at federal, state, local levels and tribal government, legislature and executive bodies “to help break these barriers down,” senior administration officials said.

The report comes as some state lawmakers across the country are working to make it harder for voter access. Republican legislatures and governors recently have passed dozens of restrictive laws dealing with voting and elections. They have limited the use of mail voting, which proved hugely popular during the pandemic, implemented strict voter ID requirements, eliminated ballot drop boxes and created several penalties for local election officials who could be accused of violating certain laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in a broader case over Arizona voting regulations to uphold a prohibition on counting ballots cast in the wrong precinct and returning early ballots for another person. Native American voting rights advocates saw it as another notch in a long history of voting discrimination.

Bills that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed last year to codify the practice of giving voters who didn’t sign mail-in ballots until 7 p.m. on Election Day to do so and that address voter rolls, also would complicate voting, tribal leaders said.

Tribal leaders in Alaska also told the steering committee that despite successful litigation to ensure language assistance, the services haven’t reached their communities, according to the committee’s report. A tribal leader on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana said a county election official did not comply with a directive to provide drop boxes on the reservation until three days before the election, the report states.

Still, there’s a push by Senate Democrats to update and restore voting rights legislation. But at the same time, with the new U.S. Census data, state legislatures and independent redistricting commissions are impacting voting power and in some cases, making voting more difficult.

Repeated circumstances found in the report were language barriers, lack of accessibility for voters with disabilities, cultural disrespect and hostility, consequences of extreme physical distance and poverty and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We heard about challenges at every stage,” officials said. But one aspect that is improving is the gaining of access to high speed internet.

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More than a year earlier, Biden issued an executive order for the Domestic Policy Council to coordinate a group made up of Attorney General Merrick Garland, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Friday, April 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

From June to October 2021, tribal nations and Native leaders provided recommendations to the report, as well as written comments. Tribal consultation were from areas in the Southwest, Western and Navajo regions; Pacific, Northwest regions; Rocky Mountain region, Eastern Oklahoma, Eastern and Midwest regions; Southern and Great Plains region; Alaska region; and Hawaii.

Listening sessions were also held with Native Hawaiians, organizations advocating for improved tribal voting rights and state and local election officials in jurisdictions with significant Native communities.

The key recommendations from the report are as follows:

  • Urging Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which includes the Native American Voting Rights Act. The report reminded states that they can take action by passing legislation that incorporates and builds upon the protections in the Native American Voting Rights Act, as Nevada, Washington and Colorado have done within the past five years.
  • Tribal leaders and Native communities should be engaged in all federal, state and local levels. County and city election officials should locate offices and polling places that serve Native communities, and staff those sites with well-trained, bilingual members of those communities.
  • The U.S. Postal Service should evaluate whether it can add routes, offices, and staff hours or personnel in areas serving Native communities. Additionally, prioritize assigning postal addresses to homes on tribal lands.
  • Government offices with significant presence serving Native communities should expeditiously offer their programs for state designation under the National Voter Registration Act, and state officials should accept those requests for designation.
  • Language assistance should be provided from jurisdictions serving Native voters, even if there are no statutory mandates.

Written and audio translations of the report will be offered in six Native languages that reflect the regional consultation structure. The languages offered will be: Navajo, Yup'ik, Ojibwe, Cherokee, Lakota and Native Hawaiian.

“It’s one way of demonstrating our commitment to living up to the same principles that we’re calling on others to recognize,” senior administration officials said.

The work is still ongoing and the report is only part of what’s being worked on. Thirteen other agencies are working on the executive order promoting access to voting.

The Interior is working with Kansas and New Mexico to designate the Department-operated post-secondary tribal institutions Haskell Indian Nations University and Southwestern Institute Polytechnic Institute as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act. Enrolled students and community members will have access to voter registration opportunities.

“We are not racing to meet any particular election date. We are bringing out agency actions as they are ready in order to better serve the voters of the country as soon as possible,” officials said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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