Investigation reveals a consistent picture: 'It's really hard to vote in Indian country'

Indian Country Today

There's more than a million Native American eligible to vote and who are not registered

In a few months Americans will head to the polls to cast their ballots in the national election. Yet, for Native Americans, this American right is not so easy to exercise. 

In a new report released by the Native American Rights Fund, for the 574 federally recognized tribes, there are barriers that keep them from voting. 

The report, "Obstacles at Every Turn: Barriers to Political Participation by Native American Voters," also shows that only 66 percent of the eligible Native American voting population is registered to vote. 

Jacqueline De Leon, a staff attorney with NARF is one of the authors of the report. Here are a few of her comments:  

"There's a longstanding history of trying to keep Native Americans outside of the political system in the United States."

"NARF and the Native American Voting Rights Coalition held a series of nine field hearings across Indian country to just listen to community leaders, organizers, tribal leaders, politicians, academics, really anybody that could speak to the topic of why it is that Natives were voting at such low numbers and really what we saw across Indian country."

"It was a remarkably consistent picture .. .It's really hard to vote in Indian country, really hard to vote, really hard to register, really hard to get your ballot counted."

"There was really consistent barriers, things like unreasonable distances to the polls, things like, terrible roads, things that are very familiar in Indian country but they create additional obstacles to the ballot box."

"More often than not ballot boxes are located outside of reservations in a border town. And that border town may or may not be hostile towards Native American people."

"There's over a million Native Americans that are eligible to vote and are not registered."

"The other thing that states did was they would say, you have to renounce your tribal citizenship in order to cast a ballot."

"It's not surprising then that elders teach their children. 'Hey, don't participate in that system. That system is not for us. We have our own system.'"

"I think that now unfortunately means that Native Americans are not participating at rates that would give us political power and that power I think is really what can make a difference in our day to day lives. And we can still maintain our sovereignty and participate in the American system. 

"It's not surprising that there's this legacy of feeling like the system isn't ours but I think that we have to fight against that indoctrination. We have to fight against the propaganda that the states, you know, passed on to us saying that the system isn't ours because Native Americans, more than anybody, are entitled to the political power that America has."

"We need to all participate so that we can improve our lives."

"Police presence is used to intimidate Native voters."

"In one town in Arizona, a hundred miles from the nearest border, they had a border patrol car parked right outside of the polling place which was just serving to be intimidating.

"We've seen Native Americans make the difference in elections all over the country."

"In Alaska, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski noted that it was the Native vote that pushed her over the top."

"In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester says that it's the Native vote that made the difference in his election. So across political spectrums, Native Americans can make a difference in elections."

"In the last presidential election by the margin that was lost in Wisconsin, there are a sufficient number of Native voters to sway that election."

"There are a lot of ways that Native Americans can increase access. I think a lot of it would be tribal governments reaching out to their local county elections officials to make sure that they have a polling place on the reservation."

"Tribal governments can also issue voter guides because I know that the ballot can be confusing and it can be intimidating. And so having a tribal voter guide can go a long way to breaking down some of the confusion that can arise about a ballot."

"We have to keep in person voting options for exactly those reasons because there aren't addresses in Indian country."

"We can use curbside voting. We can use PPE, we can have extended early voting so that people can vote in less crowded conditions. And we can use community members as poll workers."

Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.

The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva. 

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