Alarmed by the recent closure of in-person polling places on Native American reservations due to Covid-19, Senate Democrats are pressing Attorney General William Barr for more information.
Vox obtained a letter to Barr from Democratic members of the Senate Rules Committee, led by the committee’s ranking member Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM). The letter comes after a recent Vox report on the barriers Native Americans face with mail-in voting.
“We write to express serious concern regarding the mass closures of polling locations in Tribal communities due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” the letter states. “We request a commitment from the Department of Justice to work with Tribal governments to find solutions that do not disenfranchise voters in Indian Country.”
Native American voters face unique obstacles to voting even in normal election years. But the rise of vote-by-mail — a method that’s supposed to make voting easier — presents even more barriers for them.
Access to mail for voters in rural Native communities is complicated; many people don’t have traditional mailing addresses, making home delivery of mail-in ballots impossible. Many get their mail in post office boxes, which can be located many miles away and have limited hours of operation.
“Vote-by-mail works really well for middle- and upper-class white folks,” Jean Schroedel, a political science professor at Claremont Graduate College who has studied Native American voting rights, told Vox recently. “It doesn’t work for other populations, and it really, really does not work for Native people living on reservations.”
In some states, increased use of absentee ballots has meant some in-person satellite offices on Native American reservations have closed. For instance, ahead of Montana’s June 2 primary, the state gave its counties the option to switch to mail-in ballots — and all of them did. Instead of in-person voting on Election Day, voters could drop their ballot in the mail or vote early in person at each county’s election office.
But some satellite voting offices on Indian reservations like the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Blaine County also closed, leaving just one satellite office open for the primary. Local voting rights advocates on the reservation told Vox the closure meant some people on Fort Belknap’s southern end had to drive up to 78 miles one way to cast their ballot at the one satellite office that remained open.
“Voter suppression in Native communities is systemic and has taken many forms over the years,” Udall told Vox in a statement. “Now, we’re seeing state and local jurisdictions double down on decisions to eliminate polling and registration locations without Tribal consultation and under the cynical guise of public safety — forcing Native Americans to travel hundreds of miles to vote.”
In the letter, Democratic senators say they’re concerned that polling locations being closed could seriously hamper the voting rights of Native Americans across the country.
“Requests from Native American voters for more accessible polling locations have been ignored for far too long,” they write in the letter to Barr. “The Department must take action to uphold the constitutional right of Native Americans.”
The senators are asking Barr to commit to working with Native American tribal leaders to not disenfranchise voters in the middle of the pandemic. The letter specifically asks Barr to provide any complaints the Department of Justice might have received regarding a lack of polling locations for Native American voters. It also asks whether the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Indian Working Group has engaged with state and local election officials to make sure Native American voting rights are protected in upcoming primary and general elections.
“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, and we must ensure that voting is safe and easy during this pandemic,” Klobuchar told Vox in a statement. “The Department of Justice needs to commit to working with Tribal leaders to ensure that Native Americans’ ability to vote isn’t a victim of this pandemic.”
For Native Americans, distance presents a huge barrier to vote
Voting by mail is supposed to make voting easier, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. But it doesn’t necessarily solve a long-standing access barrier for Native Americans that one attorney referred to as “the tyranny of distance.”
Approximately one-third of all Native Americans, or about 1.7 million out of 5.3 million people, live on what the census designates as “hard to count” tracts of land. The Southwestern Navajo Nation, for instance, is 27,000 square miles spread out over Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. In Alaska’s remote Native villages, planes are the only method of transportation to the outside world.
“Indian country is rife with what are called nontraditional mailing addresses,” attorney Jim Tucker, who has represented Alaskan Native villages in lawsuits against the state, told Vox recently.
Distance is often coupled with high rates of poverty on reservations. About 26 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native people were living in poverty in 2016, compared to 14 percent for the US as a whole, according to the US census.
Activists and attorneys like Tucker worry that a move to vote-by-mail will compound long-standing access problems. Some voters have to drive anywhere from 50 to over 200 miles to get to a post office and check their box. The vast majority of roads on the Navajo Nation are not paved; if there’s a rainstorm and a road washes out, they’re stuck. In Montana, winter snowstorms in November have blocked reservation roads and required snowplows to clear a path to the polls. Post office boxes on reservations aren’t necessarily open five days a week, many have limited hours, and many families share a box.
Advocates say that in addition to vote-by-mail, Congress should pass increased funding for protective equipment for poll workers and expand periods of early voting on reservations. House and Senate Democrats have been advocating for similar measures in recent coronavirus relief legislation, but so far, the bills haven’t gone far in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I think the answer is, this is not simply a hard one-size-fits-all,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), an advocate for vote-by-mail and a member of the Rules Committee, recently told Vox. “It’s a recognition that we start with the presumption that everyone is going to get a ballot by mail, and in circumstances where that’s particularly challenging, like with people living on reservation land, that we adjust the rules so they will be able to get their ballots and return their ballots easily.”
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