Lawyers and advocates ponder new Native American suffrage bill
Friday, September 17, 2021
By Nancy Marie Spears
Some people with interests in aboriginal voter rights look to the Native American Voting Rights Act to help resolve voting and election issues for Oklahoma tribes. “This legislation significantly enhances the tools and resources available to help Native Americans exercise their right to vote, which is especially important for those who live in rural areas,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said when speaking. he introduced the bill at home [H.R.5008] alongside U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, Aug. 13. Native Organizers Alliance is a volunteer group known for helping to organize and strengthen Indigenous community leaders and groups. A major goal has been to register Native voters in tribal, state, and national elections.
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The alliance serves several tribes and states across the country, including Oklahoma. Jennifer Bailey, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe, volunteers there when needed. Bailey hopes the Native American Voting Rights Act will address some of the longstanding concerns she has had about voter turnout in her own tribe. “A lot of them don’t trust the voting process,” Bailey said. “They feel like it’s built against them. In reality, it is voter suppression that is a tactic to prevent Native Americans from voting and exercising their right to vote. The right to vote is a fiduciary responsibility of the federal government to Native Americans. It is a constitutional right for everyone.
The Voting Rights Bill addresses voting issues on reservations and Tribal Service Areas. Another hurdle for Native voters is that some states, including Montana, require a physical address to register to vote. Many tribal citizens who live on tribal land have their mail delivered to a post office box. Other states prohibit hand-delivery of other people’s ballots. Indigenous residents on reservations often share cars, sometimes requiring family members or friends to deliver ballots for them or their families. The bill, if passed, would allow states to set up polling places near tribal lands or service areas, and tribes would have a say in where to place them. Tribes will also be notified directly of the number of polling locations in their communities, Bailey said. Funding is another area the bill is supposed to address, Bailey said. A $10 million allocation is included in the bill for a Native American Voting Rights Task Force grant, which aims to make it easier for Indigenous people to vote. AJ Ferate of Counsel, Spencer Fane LLP, an Oklahoma City law firm, said he was open to hearing more about the suffrage bill to learn the nuances of its impact on the country. Indian. But in his two years of practicing election law, including working with several tribes in Oklahoma, he doesn’t think the real problem in getting Indigenous people to vote is in state or federal elections. The problem, he said, lies with the integrity of the vote in many communities. “What concerns me is the voting structure, the voting systems, the integrity of the vote in Indian Country,” Ferate said. “I feel like it’s much more of a concern that needs to be addressed.” He said the lack of separation of powers in some tribal governments can cause problems in keeping certain government structures accountable. “That’s one of the hard things I see through the tribes,” Ferate said. “These judges are in office because the chief appointed them or because the chief hired them. And the leader has the power to remove them. That’s the significant problem, isn’t it? I mean, if you’re hired to be a Supreme Court justice and the tribe is one of the parties you’re hearing arguments against, even those justices feel like their jobs are in jeopardy if they were to go against the tribe.
Note: Thumbnail photo of National Congress of American Indians (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Gaylord News is a Washington, DC-based reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma. Cronkite News has partnered with OU to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.
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Note: This story originally appeared on Cronkite News. It is published through a Creative Commons License. Cronkite News is produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.