Native Americans warn of voter suppression in Western states
Native American rights groups say a host of new Republican-backed bills that restrict or limit common voter registration and absentee ballot practices threaten to disenfranchise thousands of tribal citizens.
Many of the laws that have passed in recent years, driven by Republicans who have used former President Trump’s false claims about his 2020 loss as cover for a campaign against broader voter access, will take a disproportionate toll on Native American voters, those groups say, because those voters are disproportionately older, rural and impoverished.
“Structural barriers are impacting Native people’s abilities to vote,” said Allison Neswood, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “We felt like Native issues were being both misunderstood and overlooked at the state level, even by voting rights advocates because our populations can be small.”
Neswood’s group, along with the ACLU and Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic, led a challenge to two Montana laws passed by the Republican-dominated legislature earlier this year they said would directly impact the Native American vote.
One measure would have ended same-day voter registration. Another sought to block organizations from paying employees or contractors to collect absentee ballots. Earlier this month, a state court blocked both measures.
In other states, Republican legislatures have passed measures requiring a photo identification to vote. The list of acceptable documents they have adopted includes tribal government identifications — though those documents do not always come with photographs, and many Native Americans living in rural areas rely on post office boxes, because their homes do not have regular street addresses.
One such bill passed in Arizona this year, tightening identification requirements.
“Our tribal ID probably won’t meet the requirements outlined in the bill in that not all tribal IDs have photos or we don’t have physical addresses,” said Arizona state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren (D), a member of the Navajo Nation. “I feel directly attacked when we see things like this.”
The Native American Rights Fund is considering lawsuits against a new round of bills that require voters to show proof of citizenship in order to register. Though Native Americans have been in the United States far longer than there has been a United States, those born outside of hospital settings — a common occurrence for older generations — may not have a birth certificate.
Many, like Blackwater-Nygren’s grandmother, do not know their actual birthdates, or have different sets of documents that show different dates of birth.
“When I tell these stories, when I explain to lawmakers, GOP members specifically, I’m told they do know when they were born and it’s ridiculous that anybody wouldn’t know what day they were born,” Blackwater-Nygren said.
The through line of many of the restrictions that burden Native American voters is the poverty that dominates the mostly rural tribal lands, many of which are miles away not only from government facilities, but even from paved roads.
“Communities near me, they live 14, 15 miles off the paved highway,” Blackwater-Nygren said. “Even just driving into town is a big deal.”
Those who live so far from modern infrastructure are less likely to have access to personal transportation, to say nothing of virtually nonexistent public transportation. That, in itself, is a barrier to accessing a ballot box.
“Poverty is really costly for folks. It means that people are using a higher percentage of their financial resources, emotional resources, mental resources on just the basics,” Neswood said. “That can make disproportionally hard voting requirements just not worth it for some people.”
The Biden administration last month issued recommendations for state and local agencies aimed at increasing Native American voter turnout. Several of the recommendations stressed the importance of access to Postal Service routes and even in-person polling places, which are absent from many rural communities.
A report from the House Administration Committee issued last July found a lack of available polling places was disproportionately likely to impact Native American voters. Since 2012, more than 1,600 polling places have been closed, the report found.
The lack of access to those routes and polling places is what makes ballot collecting — which critics derisively call “ballot harvesting” — so crucial, she said.
Recent rounds of redistricting have consolidated or eliminated districts that could reasonably expect to elect Native American representatives, especially in state legislative chambers in North Dakota and South Dakota, where the NARF is pursuing legal challenges. Neswood said her group is considering a challenge to Arizona’s lines as well.
Native American voters make up only a few tens of thousands of votes in many states. But in places like Arizona, which President Biden carried by just 11,000 votes, their participation can tip the balance.
“We know that tens of thousands of Navajo voters voted very strong Democratic in the last election,” Blackwater-Nygren said. “And we know that makes a difference in a state like Arizona.”