By FELICIA FONSECA, Associated Press
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — 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, according to a report from the White House released Thursday.
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 backed a Democrat in a White House contest since 1996. .
The Biden administration‘s report comes a year after it issued an executive order promoting the right to vote and establishing a steering committee to examine particular barriers to voting in Indigenous communities. These include state laws and local practices that disenfranchise Indigenous voters, unequal access to early voting, and reliance on an unreliable messaging system, the report says. .
“For too long, members of tribal nations and Indigenous communities have faced unnecessary burdens when trying to exercise their sacred right to vote,” the White House said.
The administration has called on Congress to pass voting rights legislation, including the John R. Lewis Advancing Voting Rights Act and another focused on Native Americans. But those bills aren’t going anywhere. Republicans don’t want it and neither does Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, which means they don’t have enough votes in the Senate.
In the states, Republican legislatures and governors have recently passed dozens of restrictive voting and election laws. They limited the use of mail-in voting, which has proven hugely popular during the pandemic, implemented strict voter ID requirements, eliminated ballot boxes and created several penalties for local election officials who might be accused of breaking certain laws.
The US Supreme Court ruled last year in a broader case over Arizona voting regulations to uphold the ban on counting ballots cast in the wrong precinct and returning ballots anticipated for another person. Native American suffrage advocates saw it as another step in a long history of electoral discrimination.
Bills that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed last year to codify the practice of giving voters who have not signed mail-in ballots by 7 p.m. on Election Day to to do so and which deal with voter rolls, would also complicate voting, the tribal leaders said.
Democrats say the new laws are designed to target their voters, though mail-in voting restrictions also tend to hurt Republicans.
In the absence of action, the Biden administration is seeking change at more local levels while maintaining pressure on Congress. The White House pointed to stronger safeguards for Native American voters in Nevada, Washington and Colorado and suggested other states follow their lead.
The report further recommended that jurisdictions serving Indigenous voters provide language assistance even when not legally required to do so. And the US Postal Service should consider adding routes or bolstering staff in Indian Country, the report said.
The White House pointed to efforts within federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, which is working to designate tribal colleges in New Mexico and Kansas as voter registration centers. The Treasury Department will provide voter education through its Tax Assistance Centers, the White House said.
And the U.S. Justice Department has more than doubled down on its voting rights enforcement to ensure election officials comply with federal law, senior administration officials said. The administration noted, however, that Voting Rights Act protections aimed at prohibiting racial discrimination in voting are no longer adequate.
According to the committee’s report, tribal leaders in Alaska told the steering committee that despite successful litigation to secure language assistance, services have not reached their communities. A tribal leader from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana said a county election official failed to comply with a directive to provide drop boxes on the reservation until three days before the election, the report says. .
Poverty among Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, hostility between Native and non-Native communities, and cultural disrespect also impact voting patterns in Native communities, noted the ‘administration.
The White House report will be translated into six Indigenous languages: Navajo, Ojibway, Cherokee, Yu’pik, Lakota and Hawaiian.
The report builds on the work of other groups, including the Native American Rights Fund, which highlighted the challenges of voting in Indian Country, compounded by the pandemic: online registration hampered by spotty or non-existent internet service, ballots ballots delivered to seldom-checked PO boxes. and participation held back by a general reluctance to vote by mail.
Despite the challenges, Native American voting rights groups have increasingly mobilized over the years to raise voter turnout which is about 13% below the national average, according to the White House. The states with the highest percentage of Native Americans and Alaska Natives are: Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana.
Fonseca covers indigenous communities in AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP
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