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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Bills that would revamp elections and voting rights laws are before Congress. However, wIth a potential government shutdown looming, and the debt ceiling needing to be raised, it’s unclear whether Congress will act on them before it recesses on Dec. 13.

In dozens of states in recent years, hundreds of laws have been proposed in what the League of Women Voters calls a concerted effort to stop some voters from voting or to make it much harder for them to participate.

“Legislators and election officials have purged existing voters from the rolls, made cuts to early voting, reduced polling places, put in place strict voter photo ID laws and levied onerous voter registration restrictions,” states the League of Women Voters website.

According to several people who testified before a Senate Indian Affairs Subcommittee public hearing in October, Native Americans are the target of many of these actions to discourage voting. The hearing, entitled “Voting Matters in Native Communities,” had been called by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican.

“It (the discrimination) makes me really mad,” Jacqueline De Leon, Isleta Pueblo, later told Indian Country Today. She’s a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

“I think it's really clear, and I think that we have a lot of evidence of intentional discrimination ... like overt discrimination where the polling place location that they choose in South Dakota was a chicken coop, which was meant to humiliate South Dakota voters.

“(And in Montana,) where they're forcing Natives to go to border towns where just this last election in 2020, a man dressed up in full KKK gear won the Halloween costume contest in the town bordering the Fort Peck reservation. And then you say, ‘oh, you know, you should feel comfortable voting in that town,”’ De Leon said.

It’s not much better in Utah.

“Obvious racism and discrimination continue in Utah,” she said. “There was a county clerk that kicked the Native American candidate off the ballot by committing fraud. He falsified and backdated a complaint that was meritless. And a federal court had to order the Native American candidate back on the ballot and the Native American candidate won. That clerk was just fearful of that candidate. 

“And the irony is that the reason that he knew that that Native American candidate would win is because a court had to order that the districts be redrawn... the county had unfairly shaped the districts to dilute Native American power. And so the court was forced to redraw the district. And once that district was redrawn, the clerk committed fraud to kick that Native American candidate off the ballot,” De Leon said.

Dr. Aaron Payment, Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, Secretary of the National Congress of American Indians told the subcommittee, “studies have shown that photo ID requirements in particular have had a chilling effect on Native voting turnout. Reasons for this are varied, but in short, for many Native people merely getting to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles ) or secretary of state means leaving the reservation, and in many cases, having to travel up to 100 miles. These costs are prohibitive for many. Even when Native people get registered to vote, get to the polls and provide appropriate ID, language barriers remain.”

Alaska’s voting obstacles

President Julie Kitka, Chugach Eskimo, of the Alaska Federation of Natives, told the subcommittee the Alaska elections director has closed in-person voting locations in some Alaska Native villages. 

That left people able to vote only by mail “despite large numbers of limited-English proficient Alaska Native elders whose language and illiteracy barriers require in-person bilingual assistance to cast effective ballots,” Kitka said. The elections director has put federal language assistance funds into interest-bearing accounts rather than use them for their intended purpose, Kitka said.

She said the Republican administration in Alaska knowingly and actively works in other ways to suppress Alaska Native votes at the same time it makes it easier for Whites in Republican areas to vote.

“The director rejected requests by Alaska Native villages for early voting sites at the same time early voting locations proliferated in the predominately non-Native urban areas. Only after AFN (the Alaska Federation of Natives) intervened on behalf of those villages and engaged in self-help to open those locations did the director acquiesce,” she said.

Also, “rural election workers were required to be volunteers and paid a stipend of $100, or 15 cents per hour, vs. urban election workers were hired and paid $15 per hour,” Kitka said.

Julie Kitka, Chugach Eskimo, is president and CEO of the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives. (File: photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

Previously under the (1965) Voting Rights Act, Alaska and several other states with a history of discrimination had to have election changes pre-cleared by the Department of Justice. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Shelby vs. Holder that pre-clearance is unnecessary. That and another ruling opened the door to the flood of changes to election laws across the country.

“I think preclearance was a very important tool in particular for Alaska given the history there and what we've seen historically,” said staff attorney Matthew Campbell with the Native American Rights Fund, who is enrolled in the Native Village of Gambell. He said, “I do think it's something that is critical for Alaska. And that's why part of what we've been advocating for is the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.”

Kitka said, “Lacking federal oversight of election changes previously required, elections officials led by the director of DOE (Alaska Division of Elections) consistently have provided unequal opportunities for Alaska Natives to register to vote, to cast a ballot and to have their ballot counted compared to non-Natives living in urban areas.”

Natives have taken these issues to court, and “Alaska has incurred a monetary price in the millions of dollars it has had to pay Alaska Natives for their attorneys’ fees and costs (because the state lost the lawsuits). But the far greater cost has been to the thousands of Alaska Natives disenfranchised during the pendency of the litigation,” Kitka said.

Alaska Natives are credited with helping Murkowski keep her Senate seat in the 2010 election. Alaska Native corporations raised a million dollars for her campaign and tribes and Native nonprofits helped get out the Native Vote. De Leon said when Natives asked for her support for the Native American Voting Rights Act, and for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Murkowski responded accordingly.

“She's been consistent in that she's responsive to her Alaska Native constituents and her Alaska Native constituents have pushed her to be responsive to them by voting for her at critical times. So I think that it's a demonstration of Native Alaskan political power that they were able to demand of her more equitable access to the polling places and that she responded despite... a lot of political pressure.

“The fact that she is right now the only Republican that has stood firm and consistent in support of the Voting Rights Act, despite sort of the Voting Rights Act’s long bipartisan history, I think is indicative of the fact that Native Alaskans voted for her during crucial periods and are now demanding that they continue to have equitable access,” De Leon said.

Native American Rights Fund. (Photo courtesy of NARF Facebook)

Other advocates say several factors already complicate voting by Native Americans. Those include a system that doesn’t accommodate the lack of traditional addresses and home mail delivery in rural areas. Another issue is registration and voting systems that rely on the internet for people to access information and fill out forms. Rural areas lack or have holes in Internet coverage. Election officials in several states have closed polling places or removed ballot boxes on or near reservations.

De Leon called passage of voting rights laws the most pressing civil rights issue of our time, and a top priority for the Native American Rights Fund.

Of the discrimination targeting Natives, she said, “while it's infuriating, I think it just shows that there's still a lot of work to do to educate the rest of the country about these issues and why it's so important also to rally our Native communities around these issues and make sure that we're standing up for our voice, our vote and all of our rights.”

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