FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Local, state and federal officials must do more to ensure Native Americans facing persistent, longstanding and deep-rooted barriers to voting have equal access to ballots, a White House report released Thursday said.
Native Americans and Alaska Natives vote at lower rates than the national average but have been a key constituency in tight races and states with large Native populations. A surge in voter turnout among tribal members in Arizona, for example, helped lead Joe Biden to victory in the state that hadn’t supported a Democrat in a White House contest since 1996.
The Biden administration's report comes a year after he issued an executive order promoting voting rights and establishing a steering committee to look at particular barriers to voting in Indigenous communities. Those include state laws and local practices that disenfranchise Indigenous voters, unequal access to early voting and reliance on a mail system that is unreliable, the report stated.
“For far too long, members of tribal nations and Native communities have faced unnecessary burdens when they attempt to exercise their sacred right to vote,” the White House said.
The administration called on Congress to pass voting rights legislation, including the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and another focused on Native Americans. But those bills are going nowhere. Republicans wouldn't support them, and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have been unwilling to override the filibuster to allow the legislation to pass.
In the states, Republican legislatures and governors recently have passed dozens of restrictive laws dealing with voting and elections. They have limited the use of mail voting, which proved hugely popular during the pandemic, implemented strict voter ID requirements, eliminated ballot drop boxes and created several penalties for local election officials who could be accused of violating certain laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in a broader case over Arizona voting regulations to uphold a prohibition on counting ballots cast in the wrong precinct and returning early ballots for another person. Native American voting rights advocates saw it as another notch in a long history of voting discrimination.
Bills that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed last year to codify the practice of giving voters who didn’t sign mail-in ballots until 7 p.m. on Election Day to do so and that address voter rolls, also complicate voting, tribal leaders said.
Democrats say the new laws are designed to target their voters, although the mail voting restrictions also tend to hurt Republicans.
In the absence of action, the Biden administration is seeking changes at more local levels while maintaining pressure on Congress. The White House pointed to enhanced safeguards for Native American voters in Nevada, Washington and Colorado and suggested other states follow their lead.
The report recommended further recommended that jurisdictions serving Native voters offer language assistance even when they're not legally required to. And the U.S. Postal Service should consider adding routes or boosting personnel in Indian Country, the report said.
The White House highlighted efforts within federal agencies that include the Interior Department working to designate tribal colleges in New Mexico and Kansas as voter registration centers. The Treasury Department will provide voter education through its income tax assistance centers, the White House said.
And the U.S. Department of Justice has more than doubled its voting rights enforcement to ensure election officials are complying with federal law, senior administration officials said. The administration noted, though, that the protections in the Voting Rights Act to prohibit racial discrimination in voting no longer are adequate.
Tribal leaders in Alaska told the steering committee that despite successful litigation to ensure language assistance, the services haven't reached their communities, according to the committee's report. A tribal leader on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana said a county election official did not comply with a directive to provide drop boxes on the reservation until three days before the election, the report states.
Poverty among Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, hostility between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and cultural disrespect also impact voting patterns in Indigenous communities, the administration noted.
The White House report will be translated into six Indigenous languages: Navajo, Ojibwe, Cherokee, Yup'ik, Lakota and Native Hawaiian.
The report builds on the work of other groups, including the Native American Rights Fund that outlined the challenges to voting in Indian Country, deepened by the pandemic: online registration hampered by spotty or no internet service, ballots delivered to rarely-checked post office boxes and turnout curbed by a general reluctance to vote by mail.
“It is a strong first step in ensuring that Native American voters have equal access to the vote,” the Native American Rights Fund said Thursday.
Despite the challenges, Native American voting rights groups increasingly have mobilized over the years to boost turnout that is about 13% lower than the national average, according to the White House. The states will the largest percentage of Native Americans and Alaska Natives are: Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana.
Fonseca covers Indigenous communities on AP's Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP