October 9, 2020; Guardian
This week, early voters in Georgia and Texas have been facing exceedingly long lines to cast their ballots due to reduced polling places and technological issues. Others, 81.1 million in fact, have requested mail-in ballots for this year’s election as a safer option to voting in person during the pandemic. But the hurdles for Native American voters are exponentially worse. As reported in August by NPQ, the Navajo Nation had one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks and highest infection rates in the country, which would make mail-in voting a safer choice for many, but according to a recent piece published by the Guardian, “Mail posted on the reservation has to travel as much as 244 miles farther than mail posted off-reservation” and “some voters have to drive anywhere from 40 to 150 miles roundtrip to pick up their mail.” Lauren Bernally, an attorney with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC), recently stated, “Mail voting just does not work for the Navajo Nation.”
There are numerous systemic reasons why the current state of mail-in voting does not work for Native American voters. Beyond the sheer extra distance that mail must travel, O.J. Semans, Sr., a lawyer with Four Directions, a nationally renowned voting rights advocate for Native communities, found as part of the lawsuit Yazzie v. Hobbs that in Arizona, not only are there no 24/7 ballot drop-off boxes on Native lands, but there is just one early voting site for every 1,532 square miles, as compared to “the early voting location per 16.73 square miles in Scottsdale, Arizona, a community with three times as much wealth per household compared to Navajo Nation members. The disparity in early voting locations is extreme: the area on Navajo Nation is 9,158 percent that of the area per location in Scottsdale.”
Semans also notes there is “only one election day polling location per 306 square miles compared to one election day polling location per 2.9 square miles in Flagstaff, Arizona…the area on Navajo Nation is 10,554 percent that of the area per location in Flagstaff.”
Many Native Americans also don’t have regular mailing addresses. Some share their PO Boxes with their families, and if their names aren’t registered to that PO Box, they may not get their ballot. Tamisha Jensen is a jeweler who lives in the Navajo Nation; she does not have a regular mailing address and the post office does not deliver mail to her desert home. She noted that the PO Box she shares with her family members has been unreliable in the past, and she fears she won’t receive her first absentee ballot, as ballots did not go out in Arizona until October 7th.
Other hurdles also exist for Native voters, as ballots cannot be adequately translated into the many native languages that are only spoken. Plus, many states who require identification to vote by mail do not accept tribal ID cards as a valid form of identification, but for some, this is their only form of identification.
All of the above are problems for those who are actually registered to vote. The ability to even register is also riddled with many similar issues. Filling out a physical form is as problematic as voting by mail, and as reported by the Guardian, “Broadband access for online registration is limited and, until a week ago, Arizona’s online voter registration form didn’t allow for non-traditional addresses.”
There are nearly 6 million people in the US who identify as American Indian or Alaska Natives according to the Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey. But Native Americans have only had the right to vote for 63 years, since 1957, and despite the 1965 Voting Rights Act rectifying some of the barriers they faced to voting, many deep problems still exist that prevent the oldest group of Americans from participating in their country’s political process.
The recent report Obstacles at Every Turn: Barriers to Political Participation Faced by Native American Voters, released by the Native American Rights Fund and the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, highlights the continued aspects of voter suppression that Native communities continue to face, which is at the heart of the 2019 Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA) authored by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and US House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM).
According to Udall, “It provides polling places with proper voting equipment within tribal lands. It requires tribal consultation if the state makes any changes to polling site locations. It establishes the National Native American Voting Task Force to ensure that tribes have the resources they need to carry out a full and fair election. We must ensure that the voices of Native communities, in New Mexico and across Indian Country, are counted and heard.” Currently, NAVRA has not moved past the committee stage, but Udall and Lujan are continuing to fight to undo the widespread and longstanding suppression of Native American voters.
Though Katie Hobbs, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Secretary of State, claims that an additional $1.5 million has been allotted to the 20 reservations in the state, it is clear that truly substantive systemic change, like what Udall and Lujan are advocating, is needed so that the Native Americans in Arizona and across the US are no longer disenfranchised and prohibited from taking part in elections.
As Avis Little Eagle, a councilwoman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, stated last month, “It’s just unfathomable that, in the year 2020—almost 200 years after the US Constitution was in place—we’re here, still fighting for the protected right to vote. “I bet you that mainstream people don’t even know that we, as Native people, face these issues.”
With less than three weeks until the 2020 election and substantial US mail delays potentially impacting the number of received ballots, and some states allowing and some states disallowing the counting of absentee votes received after November 3rd, it’s very possible that many Native American voters like Tamisha Jensen may not ever receive her ballot and may have to vote in person and risk exposure to a virus that has wreaked terrible havoc on her community.
“Native American voters have the potential to decide elections,” said Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and co-author of Obstacles. “The first people on the land should not be the last to vote.” Sadly, in the year 2020, this is exactly the case.—Beth Couch