COVID-era changes could hurt Native American voter access

Native Americans stress that absentee voting must be coupled with in-person options.

AP Photo/Morgan Lee
June 25, 2020, 6:23 p.m.

As the coronavirus forces voters nationwide to reconsider how they’ll cast their ballots, the threat of losing access is particularly acute for Native Americans.

While Native American voting-rights groups support increased access to absentee ballots, they stress that in-person options are critical for their ability to participate, especially on rural reservations, miles away from post offices, that often lack regular mail delivery. Compounding those barriers is that Native American populations, who already face disproportionate barriers at the ballot box, are also being disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“First and foremost, it's important to point out that some of our tribal communities in New Mexico have been hit harder [by the coronavirus] than almost any other community in the country,” New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told National Journal.

State law mandates that “voter convenience centers,” including those on tribal lands, must be available to voters in the entire county. In New Mexico, county commissions determine the location of voter convenience centers in the October of the year before the election to avoid last-minute changes that could confuse voters. But during the pandemic, this stipulation that is meant to improve voter access made things more difficult.

Navajo Nation, located in McKinley County, was a virus hotspot until this week. Of the state’s 23 tribes, including Navajo Pueblo and Apache, most decided to close their borders during April and May. Many tribal leaders therefore had to choose between closing in-person voting locations altogether for the June primary, or opening their borders to those outside of the reservation, and risking their health, Toulouse Oliver said.

Heading into the general election, Toulouse Oliver is working on preventing tribal leaders from having to make that decision again. Last week, the state legislature passed a provision that would eliminate the mandate that requires polling locations on reservations to remain open to outsiders. It now awaits the approval of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“What I have heard from the communities in my state is, ‘We want a mail-voting option, because it is a good option for the people in our communities that have easy access to their mail, but we need to make sure that we have easy access for the people who don't have that option and are not well served by the postal service,’” Toulouse Oliver said.

On reservations, many homes do not have traditional addresses, making it impossible for the postal service to deliver ballots to homes. Instead, voters often use post-office boxes, which compounds the problem since the boxes often require long commutes from the reservation.

“Throughout Indian country, people aren't receiving mail at their home,” explained Jacqueline De León, a member of the Isleta Pueblo tribal community and staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit legal organization defending rights of Native American tribes. “So this idea of a safe at home vote-by-mail option simply doesn't exist in Native American communities.”

According to NARF, some Navajo Nation members make 140-mile round trips to access postal services. In Montana, Fort Peck members often travel 34 miles each way. Additionally, because of fees associated with postal boxes, and because reservations often lack enough boxes to serve all residents individually, friends and family often share them. Some precincts never allow post-office boxes for voter registration while others stipulate that the boxes cannot be shared.

“The mail routes in Indian Country are so circuitous,” De León said. “When you drop off mail in a rural post office, it doesn't go as the crow flies.”

She explained that instead of going directly to the county auditor, the ballot may stop in multiple locations first.

"Ballots from Indian country, even if reasonably mailed a week or even two weeks before the deadline, may not reach the elections office in time, so you have to go in person,” De León said.

In addition to the challenges presented by the mail service on reservation land, there is also the element of language barriers. Some elderly Native voters are not fluent in English and require ballot translation. Some languages are not written and require verbal transitions at the polling location. In Alaska, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Utah, these voters are covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires language assistance.

“I’ve organized for years in Indian country, I’m familiar with the tactics that disenfranchise voters, and I know that Native voters face limited access to transportation, broadband internet, and even mail,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, who represents New Mexico’s 1st District.

At the federal level, Haaland introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act with Rep. Ben Ray Lujàn and Sen. Tom Udall. The legislation aims to open up communication between the federal government and Native American tribes, direct states to allow tribal ID cards while voting, and allow tribal communities to request election observers, according to the Brennan Center.

“As voting changes move forward in light of the pandemic, it’s important that Native Americans have a seat at the table to discuss what those changes should look like in their communities, and that safe, physical distancing and extra voting locations are available in places where vote-by-mail is not possible,” Haaland said in a statement to National Journal.

O.J. Semans, cofounder of Four Directions, a nonpartisan voting rights organization focused on equality at the ballot box for Native Americans, said their work has been complicated by President Trump, who consistently rails against absentee voting.

“The main problem we have is the president's outrageous allegations about voting by mail basically puts our actual fact-based concerns way in the back burner,” Semans said.

Toulouse Oliver explained that serving those who don’t have easy access to mail includes maintaining in-person voting locations and establishing convenient ballot drop-offs.

“You have to drown out the unfounded criticism and focus on what our tribal brothers and sisters are saying about what their particular issues are,” Toulouse Oliver said.

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