The rights of indigenous communities – including the right to vote – have been systematically violated for generations with devastating consequences for access to clean air and water, health, education, economic opportunities, housing and sovereignty.
Voter turnout for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives is the lowest in the country, and about one in three eligible voters (1.2 million people) are not registered to vote.
American Indians and Native Alaskans were the last group in the United States to get citizenship and to get the vote. Even after the civil war and the Reconstruction (13th, 14th and 15th) amendments there was a supreme court decision that said indigenous people could never become US citizens, and some laws used to disenfranchise them were still in place in 1975. In fact first-generation violations used to deny – not just dilute voting rights – were in place for much longer for Native Americans than any other group. Laws passed specifically to disenfranchise African Americans were also passed in places which didn’t have black people. For example, Idaho put in place felony disenfranchisement around when it became the state, at a time when census data shows there were only 88 black people – it was designed to disenfranchise Native people. Half the states with harshest felony disenfranchisement don’t have many black people, but have big Native Americans or Latino populations.
The Dakotas are the heart of what was the great Sioux Nations. It’s been one of the worst places for suppression of the Native American vote. North Dakota has passed one law after another that made it harder and harder for people to vote. In South Dakota, more than a quarter of the 2016 registered voters in Todd county – which is the Rosebud Sioux – had been purged by 2020.
Voting by mail is very challenging for Native Americans for multiple reasons. First and foremost, most reservations do not have home mail delivery. Instead, people need to travel to post offices or postal provide sites – little places that offer minimal mail services and are located in places like gas stations and mini-marts. Take the Navajo Nation that encompasses 27,425 square miles – it’s larger than West Virginia, yet there are only 40 places where people can send and receive mail. In West Virginia, there are 725. Not a single PO box on the Navajo Nation has 24-hour access. All the mail sent from post offices off-reservation arrived at the election office within one to three days. Whereas around half sent from the reservation took three to 10 days. South Dakota requires mail ballots to be notarized but there are no notaries on reservations.
It can make it very difficult for people who live on reservations where many roads don’t have names or numbers – so-called non-standard addresses, which are very problematic in states requiring IDs with residential addresses. A number of states like South Dakota have chosen to make it a felony offense with prison terms and fines if someone votes using an address different to the one given to register, even though unstable housing is a big issue on reservations, and people stay in different places all the time.
Tribal ID has not been accepted in a number of states in the past, including North Dakota and Minnesota.
A federal appeals court has rejected a bid to give an extra 10 days after Election Day to count ballots mailed by Navajo Nation members living on the Arizona portion of the tribe’s reservation. Arizona’s requirement that mail ballots be received by 7 p.m. on election night would disenfranchise tribal members.