Though Native Americans have technically been enfranchised since 1924, numerous obstacles in various states serve to bar individuals from voting. They largely affect the 30% of the 5.2 million Native Americans who live on reservations, but even extend to people living in rural areas more generally.
So a new online resource, called Natives Vote, aims to help Native Americans navigate roadblocks to the ballot box, by supplying specific, scrupulous details for registering, voting in person, and voting by mail, in all relevant counties and Indian tribal lands in the U.S. It’s an effort to assist people in clearing up the significant “voter confusion” created by carefully targeted suppression laws.
Most glaring of the issues are voter ID laws, such as the one instated by North Dakota in 2012, which the ACLU stated was an attempt at “mass disenfranchisement.” It required all voters to show a physical piece of identification at the polling place that displays a street address. That unfairly targets many Native voters who live on reservations and don’t have street addresses, but rather use PO boxes, which the law specifically restricted as proof of residence. After two tribes filed a lawsuit, the rules were relaxed in February this year, but the current requirements are still vague.
Additionally, some states have closed polling places on reservations in recent years, requiring people in states such as Alaska and Arizona to travel for hours to reach their closest sites in towns that border their reservations. In 2018, members of the Kaibab Paiute tribe in Arizona had to drive 280 miles each way to their polling place. Others have to travel 100 miles just to register to vote.
“It’s absolutely intentional,” says Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IlluminNative, a nonprofit designed to combat negative narratives about Native communities, which spearheaded the new online tool. The Native vote could swing some of the states in question, such as Arizona, which is likely to be a key battleground this year.
All this is compounded by a different voting landscape this year. “There’s so much shifting and changing for any American right now,” Echo Hawk says. Absentee ballots add another layer of complexity: In many states, voter IDs are still needed just to request mail-in ballots. Some people have to drive up to 70 miles each way to a local post office or PO box. Some states won’t even send ballots to PO boxes.
These intricacies led IllumiNative to partner with the Native Organizers Alliance, and the Indian Law Clinic at the University of Colorado, to produce the extensive online resource, which goes into county-level detail. “Whether you’re Native American or not, it’s really going to come down to what’s happening in your particular county,” Echo Hawk says.
Online visitors can select their state and find relevant links to their state, county, and tribal information, and to helpful resources to overcome administrative barriers. They show the nearest ballot drop boxes, an easier option for many. In North Dakota, tribal residents can now be assigned an official address if they locate it on a map or describe it to an election administrator, so that state’s page contains PDFs of maps for assistance. But, whether this rule will play out fairly is still unknown: “It is not clear yet what will happen on Election Day,” the resource warns.
What’s more, Native voters at border-town polling sites have often faced some degree of bias. Carla Fredericks, director of the Indian Law Clinic, witnessed this as her research team conducted poll watching in border towns during the last two elections, when she found instances of “prevalent racism.” The mostly white poll workers would chat in a friendly manner to white voters, while bluntly asking for “license and registration” from Natives. While Fredericks stops short of calling it intimidation, “It felt very divided and very inhospitable at the very least,” she says. “That’s not what we want in our democracy.”
In the long term, Echo Hawk says, the key is to have more Native representatives in Congress (there are currently only three). But, in the meantime, the tool, which will continue to update with information in the coming weeks, aims to leverage information as power and send energized voters to the polls. “We honor the hard-fought right to vote that Native people have,” Fredericks says, “and wanted to do something that was specific to the concerns and culture of Native people.”