Members of Congress introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act last week amid an ongoing wave of voter suppression bills in Republican-run states that make it harder for Native people to vote.
The bill was introduced in the House on Aug. 13 by Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who are both Native American, and in the Senate on Aug. 10 by Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), whose state is home to a large Native population. It would provide equal access to voting on reservations while countering the explicit discrimination Native people routinely face from hostile state and local governments.
“This landmark voting rights legislation will protect the sacred right to vote and reduce barriers for voters living on Tribal lands – bringing more voters into the electoral process,” Luján said in a statement. “With more Senate co-sponsors than ever before, I’m proud of the momentum that is building for this legislation. Native American voting rights must be part of the national conversation.”
The bill would require states to provide voter registration and polling locations and drop boxes for mail-in ballots on all reservations. It would allow Native voters to list a general reservation mailing address on their voter registration and identification while mandating states that require voter identification to accept tribal identification. And it would require election officials to justify any reduction or disparity in election access in Native communities.
“This bill further fulfills our federal trust responsibility to protect and promote Native Americans’ exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote,” Davids said in a statement.
A 2020 report by the Native American Rights Fund found that Native peoples still face “first generation barriers ― actual barriers to voting” that are preventing them from registering to vote, casting their ballots and exercising political power. These barriers include geographic isolation, untraditional addresses, lack of or limited mail delivery, and language access issues.
These obstacles are compounded by deliberate exploitation and discrimination by state and local politicians and election officials who seek to make it harder for Native people to vote.
“Native Americans face absurd discrepancies in voting compared to their non-Native counterparts, and those discrepancies are being taken advantage of,” said Jacqueline De León, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. “We need federal action.”
This exploitation is seen in the unequal access to polling locations on Native reservations, where some reservation residents must travel more than 100 miles to register, vote or correct a ballot cast early. It is visible in the restrictive voter identification law enacted in North Dakota in 2013 that narrowed voter ID requirements to those listing a residential street address, which many reservation residents lack and tribal IDs do not contain.