Blocked from the Booth: Many Native Americans Have Difficulty Voting

When North Dakota Democrats held their caucus in March, residents of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation – which stretches over six counties and nearly a million acres – had just one designated spot to drop off ballots.

The distance to the dropbox made voting impossible for many – especially those without reliable transportation, said Ruth Anna Buffalo, North Dakota’s only female Native American state legislator.

Buffalo was one of four panelists on a recent Carter Center virtual roundtable, “Native American Participation 2020,” which examined obstacles Native Americans face when they try to vote in U.S. elections and how those obstacles might be overcome. Participation is likely to be even more challenging this year because of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected many Indian tribes and will likely force changes to election operations in November.

Panelist Natalie Landreth, senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said her organization conducted field hearings in 2017 and 2018 to investigate the ways Native Americans are kept from exercising their right to vote.

"What we found," she said, "was absolutely egregious."

Barriers included:

-Geographic isolation – many Native Americans face long drives to get to a voter registration site or polling place.

-Poor or nonexistent roads, which increase travel times for even seemingly shorter distances.

-Limited hours of operation at government offices where people must go to register to vote.

-Technology issues – 90 percent of Indian country lacks access to WiFi, meaning residents can’t easily obtain and print online forms.

-Low levels of education or English proficiency.

-Poverty, which often means a lack of transportation or permanent addresses.

-Nontraditional mailing addresses, particularly in rural areas, which make it difficult to register to vote and/or receive ballots by mail.

And then there is overt discrimination or intimidation: Landreth learned of one polling place for Native Americans housed in a chicken coop with egg boxes still inside, and of another in a sheriff’s office, where officers ran license plates while voters were inside.

Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state, spoke of ways her state – which votes almost entirely by mail – has tried to mitigate problems with nontraditional addresses and geographic isolation. In 2019, it launched a new voter registration system that allows users to pinpoint their location using GPS. This ensures they are placed in the proper precinct. They can then pick up ballots at a community center on tribal land.

The state also set up 40 dropboxes on or near tribal land to make it easier to return ballots.

Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the Democracy Fund's elections program, said her organization is working with tribal leaders and the postal service across the country on these sorts of issues as well, pushing for permission to use tribal government offices as addresses for voter registration purposes and to establish cluster mailboxes in these offices, for example. It's also working to review rural carrier routes, to determine whether carriers are driving past tribal land on their way to deliver to others, and if so, whether cluster boxes might be installed on those routes.

But there is a lot of work still to do, including building trust among Native Americans, who feel they have been neglected or mistreated by governments again and again.

All four panelists encouraged young Native Americans to get involved in the 2020 election, whether by campaigning for their favorite candidate, helping translate voting materials into local languages, or driving family and neighbors to polls.

Wyman pointed out another area where young people will be especially needed in 2020 – as election workers.

 "Across the country, COVID-19 is going to have an adverse impact on our traditional seasonal election workers," she said. "In Washington, the average age of our seasonal workers is 70, and this is the highest-risk group for COVID-19. I think we’re going to see a real drop-off in available workers."

Young people make up the largest generation of Native Americans, said Ruth Anna Buffalo, and getting them involved in politics can help bring about lasting change. Indigenous people are more likely to vote when they see poll workers who look like them and candidates who reflect their values and experiences and are sensitive to their communities’ needs.

Related Resources

Learn more about the Carter Center's Democracy Program »

Breaking Down Barriers to Native American Voting »

Forum on Human Rights | Native American Participation in US Elections: Case Studies »

Watch more roundtable discussions »

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