Stephen Groves and Pia Deshpande
MISSION, S.D. — The small, brick post office in Mission, South Dakota, sees steady business most days as people wait outside to allow one family at a time to check for mail at one of just four such depots scattered across the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
With limited polling places on a reservation that's roughly 2,000 square miles and officials pushing people to vote by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic, cramped post offices such as this one are a lifeline to preserving Native Americans' right to vote.
But voting rights advocates fear it's not enough.
The slow-moving nature of mail on large reservations puts the people who live there at a disadvantage to getting their votes counted, advocates say. They have launched a series of legal challenges in several states to gain accommodations for reservation voters while also pressing people to figure out how to get their ballot counted as the coronavirus upends life in Native American communities.
"Using the mail is less effective, and it's devastating in Indian Country," said OJ Semans, co-founder of an advocacy group called Four Directions.
Home mail delivery is rare on Rosebud Indian Reservation, Semans said, so people rely on post office boxes, some making a roundtrip of over 60 miles to check their mail — or to vote. Complicating the process: Many people don't have reliable transportation and extended families share post office boxes.
"Poverty, time, distance, transportation has always been a barrier to participating in elections," Semans said, describing the compounding obstacles that lead to low voter turnout on many large reservations.
Native Americans have a long history of exclusion from voting, with the U.S. government depriving them of citizenship until 1924. Some states, including the Dakotas, had laws preventing tribal members from voting into the 1950s.
In recent years, voting rights advocates and tribes have won or settled 86 election-related lawsuits in a state-by-state legal battle to increase voting access for Native Americans. But advocates worry that progress could face setbacks as election officials push for mail-in voting and tribes scramble to contain COVID-19 outbreaks by locking down reservation communities.
In Arizona, an appeals court recently rejected a lawsuit from six members of the Navajo Nation seeking an extra 10 days to count tribal members' mailed ballots.
In Montana, tribes and voter advocates successfully sued to overturn a law limiting the number of absentee ballots that a person can collect and turn in to county auditors — " ballot harvesting" that tribes said is vital.
Data from this year's primaries, which relied heavily on mail-in voting, reveals shortfalls in voter turnout on reservations. An Associated Press analysis of Democratic primaries in South Dakota showed that turnout was 10 percent lower among voters who lived in counties with a majority American Indian population and at least 95 percent of the county on reservation land. The analysis considered data from presidential Democratic primaries because the Republican presidential primary was not competitive this year.
That gap in turnout has voter advocates concerned. With coronavirus cases surging across the Dakotas and Montana, voting groups have tried to get creative, holding outdoor or drive-up voter registration drives.
Wicahpi Yankton, an 18-year-old member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, worked a number of drives this year. She said people showed up from all corners of the Pine Ridge Reservation, getting rides with family members to travel as far as 50 miles.
She was surprised to meet a fellow first-time voter who was 71 years old — born when South Dakota still had laws barring tribal members from voting. Yankton helped the woman, whom she called unci (grandmother in the Lakota language), complete the voter registration form.
Completing the form can be tricky because reservation residents don't always have addresses with a street name and number. Instead they rely on descriptions such as, "I'm on the highway going towards Gordon, take a left, you should see a white trailer, then you go past that trailer and you should see another trailer there. That will have two cars in the front. That's where I live," Yankton said.
Oglala Lakota County, where Yankton helped with voter drives, had the lowest voter turnout in the state during this year's Democratic primaries, with just 14 percent of registered voters casting ballots.
Despite the difficulties, community leaders are emphasizing the importance of voting. Many tribes are entitled to federally provided health care and education, leaving these essentials to the fluctuations of bureaucracy.
But many Native Americans are distrustful of federal and state governments — another factor that mitigates voter turnout, according to Jean Schroedel, a political science professor at Claremont Graduate University who has conducted polling on several reservations.
"In particular, when you turn to voting by mail, the levels of trust dropped dramatically," Schroedel said.
Tribes also have found themselves pushing back against moves to shrink the number of satellite offices that collect absentee ballots on reservations. The Blackfeet Nation in Montana sued to have a satellite office opened on reservation land. In Arizona, a federal judge denied the Pascua Yaqui Tribe's request to open an early voting and ballot collection site on their reservation that was closed after 2016.
In the Dakotas, organizations are looking at options like coordinating rides among family members instead of using the vans or buses that usually ferry people to polling places on Election Day. Several tribes dealing with virus outbreaks have issued lockdown orders, adding another element of uncertainty.
On the Standing Rock Reservation, which spans North Dakota and South Dakota, the tribe has joined with the Lakota People's Law Project to organize a phone bank to call Native American voters, especially in the battleground state of North Carolina, where they say tribal members have struggled to get to the polls in previous years.
Voter advocates in North Dakota believe they can help. After tribes fought a state law that would have required verified street addresses on ID cards, local organizations doubled-down on their get-out-the-vote efforts. In 2018, two counties with large tribal populations saw their highest turnout in years.
The resolve is something that phone bank worker Melanie Thompson hopes she passes on to Native Americans in North Carolina who had mail-in ballots sent back because they weren't filled out properly.
"They say they are going straight to the polls to get in that line," Thompson said. "Coronavirus or no coronavirus."
Deshpande reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporters Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, also contributed.