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February 01, 2020

Native American Voting Rights

Barriers and Solutions Examined by Congress

Earlier this month, the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections held a hearing on barriers to Native American voting rights and on H.R. 1694, the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019. On February 28, the ABA submitted comments for the hearing record based on policy just adopted during the Midyear Meeting.

The ABA has repeatedly advocated for the federal government to fulfill its unique trust and treaty obligations owed to all Native Tribes. Pursuant to this obligation, the federal government has the responsibility to ensure that Native Americans and Alaska Natives have the ability to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

In furtherance of this federal responsibility and our long-standing commitment to protecting voting rights and increasing voter participation, the ABA’s new policy acknowledges the serious voting barriers faced by Native Americans and Alaska Natives and urges specific remedial actions to remove these barriers and establish mechanisms to safeguard their future access to the polls.

Presently, 1.2 million eligible Native American voters are not registered to vote. In 2018, the Native American Voting Rights Coalition released a report that documented the obstacles that have impeded the ability of Native Americans and Alaska Natives to participate in the voting process. Language barriers, poverty, lack of access to transportation, lack of residential addresses, lack of access to mail, the digital divide, and distance are just some of the obstacles included in that report. Election laws and policies create additional barriers, such as voter identification laws and lack of polling locations on or near Tribal lands.

To rectify voter participation barriers, the new ABA policy urges federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to enact legislation that:

(1) Provides equal access to voter registration and polling sites for Native American and Alaska Natives to increase Native American and Alaska Native access at each stage of the voting process;

 (2) Ensures equal treatment for Tribal identification by directing election officials and voting precincts to treat Tribal identification cards like state and local identification cards for purposes of voting and registering to vote;

 (3) Requires jurisdictions to give notice and obtain consent from Native Americans and Alaska Native Tribes before eliminating the only polling location or voter registration site on tribal lands; closing or moving a polling place or voter registration site to a location one mile or further from the current location; or other aspects of election administration; and 

(4) Requires adequate language assistance by directing states to consult with Tribes on appropriate methods for furnishing instructions, assistance, and other information related to registration and voting under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.

The ABA policy also urges the federal government to improve voter outreach and access in Indian Country by:

(1) Providing Tribal leaders a direct pathway to request Federal election observers;

(2) Requiring the United States Department of Justice to conduct annual voting consultation with Indian Tribes; and 

(3) Establishing a Native American Voting Rights Task Force under the Office for Civil Rights at the Office of Justice Programs of the Department of Justice, in coordination with the Department of the Interior, to provide grant funds to Tribal and state consortiums for purposes of boosting Native voter registration, education, and election participation in Tribal communities.

Congress examined the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019, H.R. 1694, during its recent hearing which includes provisions that would accomplish each of these ABA goals. The ABA supports this legislation and will work to persuade Congress to enact these important solutions to Native American voting barriers before the end of this legislative session.

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