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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

250: Nov 21 2020: We are making our invisible community visible again.

Jim McFadden has always been an advocate for those who have been suppressed, ignored and disenfranchised. In tomorrow's Taize liturgy he explores the plight of Native Americans and the challenges they have faced since being colonized. These are excerpts from his reflection on the challenges Native Americans face as they try to participate in our democracy by voting.

Please remember to join us on ZOOM at 4:45 tomorrow: Sunday November 22nd. 2020.

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Passcode: 1234

Meeting ID: 519 315 8573

“Since colonization happened, we have been invisibilized, our communities have been shoved aside, and overlooked time and time again. When our communities turn out to say, ‘We want these people to represent us,’ or ‘We want these policies to be passed, because it’s important to our community,’ - William Miller, community advocacy manager at the Native American Youth and Family Center

In order to understand the challenges faced by Native American voters, one must recognize the vast differences in experiences, opportunities, and realities facing on-reservation.

I will never forget the Navajo grandmother who spoke only Navajo and could not vote after Arizona passed its voter ID law in 2004. She tried several times to obtain an Arizona ID on her own but was denied because she was born at home..., and the boarding schools changed her Navajo name to English. She lived in a modest home on the Navajo Reservation without electricity and running water, and lived a traditional lifestyle taking care of her sheep. She was embarrassed and devastated when she was turned away from the polls for not having an ID.

Turnout for Native Americans is the lowest in the country, as compared to other groups. While a number of issues contribute to the low voter turnout, a study conducted by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition found that low levels of trust in government, lack of information on how and where to register and to vote, long travel distances to register or to vote, low levels of access to the internet, hostility toward Native Americans, and intimidation are obstacles. Isolating conditions such as language barriers, socioeconomic disparities, lack of access to transportation, lack of residential addresses, lack of access to mail, and the digital divide limit Native American political participation. Changes to voting processes further frustrate the ability of Native Americans to vote.

Something as simple as not having a residential address impacts all aspects of voting, including getting your mail, registering to vote, and complying with ever-increasing voter ID laws.

While 84 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, many Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in rural communities that lack residential addresses. Homes are usually described in terms of landmarks, crossroads, and directions. Numerous roads on reservations are unimproved dirt or gravel roads in poor quality and are often unnamed. After storms, many roads are impassable. Due to these poor conditions, the U.S. Postal Service does not deliver mail to the majority of the reservation residents at their homes.

An additional problem affecting many Native Americans is homelessness or near homelessness due to extreme poverty and lack of affordable housing on many reservations. A study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that between 42,000 and 85,000 people in tribal areas are couch surfers, staying with friends or relatives only because they have no place of their own. This lack of permanent housing impacts the ability of these tribal members to have a permanent physical address, yet this should not impede their ability to exercise their right to vote.

Due to the lack of residential addresses, most residents rely on P.O. boxes in a nearby town or get their mail through a trading post or other location. Some reservation residents have to travel up to 70 miles in one direction to receive mail. In Arizona, for example, only 18 percent of reservation voters outside of Maricopa and Pima Counties have residential addresses and receive mail at home. The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States—larger than West Virginia—does not have an addressing program, and most people live in remote communities. Similarly, many other reservations lack home mail delivery. On the Tohono O’odham Reservation, there are 1,900 P.O. boxes and some cluster mailboxes. Residents may check their mail every two weeks, and some only once per month.

Voter ID laws further complicate this issue. Native Americans are less likely to have a form of ID compliant with voter ID laws requiring residential addresses because in addition to states failing to consider tribal IDs when passing these laws, there are also socioeconomic and institutional factors that keep reservation residents from obtaining IDs. Although many tribes issue IDs, not all tribal IDs include addresses. Even if a tribal member has an ID with an address, because reservation voters lack residential addresses, the ID may have a P.O. box or descriptive address. Nontraditional addresses do not fit into county database systems, resulting in counties reassigning addresses to voters. This may result in the ID being rejected due to insufficient poll worker training or because it does not match the residential address in the voter file. This has resulted in voters being denied a regular ballot because the address on their IDs did not match the addresses assigned by the counties for the voter registration database.

A voter ID law requiring a residential address went into effect in North Dakota right before the 2018 midterm elections that expressly excluded the use of P.O. boxes as residential addresses. Over 5,000 Native Americans lacked the requisite form of ID to vote, as no reservation had residential addresses. The tribes searched for solutions prior to Election Day. The North Dakota Secretary of State informed tribal leaders that voters could call the county 911 coordinator to receive an address. When a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member called to determine her residential address, the sheriff told her that he was transporting prisoners and could not assign addresses that day. Another voter was assigned a residential address corresponding to a nearby bar, exposing that tribal member to fraud if he voted based on that address.

In 2008, the Alaskan government eliminated polling locations for Alaska Native villages as part of a “district realignment” that resulted in voters having to travel by plane in order to vote. In 2016, the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute Tribes in Nevada filed a lawsuit prior to the 2016 general election in order to get polling locations on the reservation. In 2016, San Juan County, Utah, switched to a mail-only voting system and offered in-person early voting only in the majority white part of the county; the Navajo Nation sued to ensure in-person locations and compliance with the language assistance requirements under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.

The prevalence of these barriers undermines our democracy and contributes to low voter participation among Native Americans

As a remedy Congress introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019 (H.R. 1694; S. 739) to remove voting barriers and improve access to voting for Native American and Alaska Native voters. The legislation would provide resources and oversight to ensure that Native Americans have equal access to the voting process. In furtherance of the trust responsibility, the bill would require the Department of Justice to consult annually with tribes on voting issues. Key elements of the bill include improving access to voter registration sites and polling locations, approving the use of tribal IDs for election purposes, and requiring jurisdictions to consult with tribes prior to closing voter registration or polling locations on Indian lands. The bill explicitly states that a tribal ID need not include a residential address or expiration date for voting purposes. The bill would also create a Native American Voting Task Force grant program to provide much needed funding for voter outreach, education, registration, and turnout in Native American communities.

Leading up to the 2020 election, Native American organizers across the country engaged in efforts to activate voters in their communities — and numbers in multiple key swing states showed they were successful.

While there is still significant work to be done to support the country’s Native American communities, some organizers are optimistic that their efforts leading up to the 2020 election may pave the way for future change.

In October, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris released a plan for tribal nations on their campaign website, in which they pledged to strengthen the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the United States and American Indian tribes, increase access to health care, address ongoing violence against Native American women and “ensure Native Americans can exercise their right to vote.”

“There’s a lot of hope that the Biden administration will usher in a new era of activists, changemakers, and the ability to really influence policy and systems changes at a greater level than we were able to during the Trump administration.”

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