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Breaking Down Barriers to Native American Voting

  • Kim Wyman, secretary of state in Washington, addresses the conference as Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress, and Jocelyn Benson, secretary of state in Michigan, listen. (Photos: The Carter Center/ M. Schwarz)

  • David Carroll and Avery Davis-Roberts, director and associate director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program, hope to hold more conferences that bring together election officials and Native American voting rights advocates.

Their ancestors were the first to live on the land that came to be known as America, and yet many still have trouble exercising the most basic of American rights – the right to vote.

Native Americans face a variety of barriers on their way to the polls, some of which seem almost unbelievable in 2019.

They are sometimes forced to drive more than 100 miles round-trip to cast a ballot; others are denied the chance to even register because they have non-traditional mailing addresses — rural route numbers, for example, or post office boxes.

The Native American Voting Rights Coalition conducted field hearings on or near tribal lands in seven Western states in early 2018, interviewing more than 125 voters and would-be voters about their election-related experiences. The coalition gave the first presentation on its findings at a conference about Native American participation in U.S. elections that The Carter Center organized in December. In addition to barriers related to geographical isolation and mailing addresses, the coalition noted other issues that suppress voter turnout, including:

Poverty: Native Americans have the highest rate of poverty of any population group, which results in higher-than-average rates of homelessness and illiteracy and exacerbates transportation issues.

Language barriers: More than a quarter of single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives speak a language other than English at home, but many jurisdictions don’t translate voting materials into Native American dialects or hire enough bilingual poll workers.

Lack of broadband and internet access: Less than 10 percent of people on tribal lands have broadband access, which means they often miss out on voting information and have no ability to register online.

The coalition’s findings came as a surprise to many conference attendees who work in election administration: “I was shocked that we’re talking about solving problems that I thought were solved 40 years ago,” said Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state and co-chair of the Carter Center meeting. “I believed we’d gotten rid of these barriers.”

Because her state conducts all voting by mail, she said, she thought it was doing a good job dealing with these issues. But what she heard during the conference made her realize that election officials need to do more to ensure that obstacles are effectively addressed.

For her part, Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund said that hearing from the election officials at the conference made her aware that activists need to work harder to educate the public about these barriers.

“Too often, Native American voting activists and election officials only meet in the courtroom,” said Avery Davis-Roberts, an associate director in the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “We wanted to give them a chance to connect and exchange ideas in a neutral environment.”

Though Native Americans win about 95 percent of their election-related cases, according to one expert, lawsuits can’t entirely break down voting barriers.

“We cannot litigate our way out of this problem,” said Virginia Davis of the National Conference on American Indians. “It’s an important tool, but it’s too expensive and not available to everyone. It doesn’t build relationships on the ground. We need diplomacy.”

Participants agreed that more meetings like this one are needed.

Democracy Program Director David Carroll said The Carter Center hopes to make that happen: “A lot of people told us that they’d made helpful connections at the conference. We want to do whatever we can to help those connections grow, because The Carter Center believes that the right to vote should be available to all.”

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