Gaylord News: Voting Rights Bill resolves long-standing roadblocks in Indian Country

White House: Vice President Harris Hosts a Conversation on Native American Suffrage

Lawyers and advocates ponder new Native American suffrage bill

Friday, September 17, 2021

By Nancy Marie Spears

Gaylord News

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.

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.

Indianz.Com Audio: Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary Deb Haaland: Native American Voting Rights
Victoria Holland, a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, said only a small portion of eligible voters in her tribe actually vote. “I’m sure that would be reflected in national elections as well,” Holland said. “While there are many reasons for this, lack of access should not be one of them.” Holland is an attorney at Devol and Associates, working with several tribes in Oklahoma. She said she supports the Native American Voting Rights Act because it addresses barriers that can make voting inaccessible to Indigenous people. Besides the obvious — the lack of trust in the federal government after centuries of cultural and physical genocide — Bailey said, additional hurdles in Oklahoma hamper the tribal vote. The main complaint from native voters, Bailey said, is that tribal ID cards are often not an acceptable form of identification for entering the polls or registering to vote. Many members of the tribe do not have state-issued identification. “I think this (bill) is going to be something that’s going to potentially increase the number of voters for Native Americans in Oklahoma,” Bailey said.

Native American Voting Rights Act Social Media Toolkit:
Native American Voting Rights Act Social Media Toolkit:
Native American Voting Rights Act
Native American Voting Rights Act Social Media Toolkit:
Native American Voting Rights Act
Native American Voting Rights Act Social Media Toolkit:
Native American Voting Rights Act
Native American Voting Rights Act Social Media Toolkit:

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.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary Deb Haaland

Vice President Kamala Harris and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland participate in a meeting on Native suffrage at the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House on July 27 2021. Photo by Lawrence Jackson/White House
While these issues exist at some level in all governments, at the federal level, Congress has seen historic changes in the political participation and inclusion of Indigenous peoples. Bailey called recent Indigenous appointments to key federal positions, including Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, a promising sign. For Holland, it’s a testament to Indigenous resilience. “Any time there’s an Indigenous person in a high-ranking office, I think it just speaks to Indigenous distance and resilience,” Holland said. “There was a time, not so long ago, when indigenous people were supposed to be laid off. We weren’t supposed to be here today, but we are. We are doing important things and it is inspiring.
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.

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