The American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) population is a growing political force in the United States. With more than 4.7 million eligible voters, AI/AN people can affect the outcomes of close elections across the country. Yet despite its power, the AI/AN population faces unique barriers to voting, including systematic, intentional disenfranchisement. These barriers have contributed to a consistent 5 percentage point to 14 percentage point gap in voter turnout between AI/AN people and other racial and ethnic groups. The status quo is not only undemocratic, but it also perpetuates the United States’ long and shameful legacy of oppression and exclusion of Native peoples.
The federal government did not grant full citizenship to Native peoples until 1924. Even with citizenship, many AI/AN people were prohibited from voting until the 1970s. While history cannot be changed, the future remains unwritten. It is time to remove systemic barriers, end voter suppression tactics, and empower this important population to exercise fully their fundamental right to vote.
Here are five ways to increase voter participation in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
Expand voter registration opportunities
The Native American Voting Rights Coalition, led by the Native American Rights Fund, recently found that nearly 1 in 3 American Indians are not registered to vote. Respondents to its survey reported “a lack of information on how or where to register” as the primary reason for not registering. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires departments of motor vehicles (DMVs) and other social service agencies to provide registration assistance to clients. In the same survey, however, American Indians in multiple states reported high rates of noncompliance among these agencies.
While lawmakers should work to ensure full compliance with the NVRA, they should also consider expanding opportunities to register eligible voters. For example, Demos offered a proposal to designate Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities “as official voter registration agencies” under the NVRA. The IHS health system assists approximately 1.9 million AI/AN people in more than 670 facilities across 35 states. Its regular contact with AI/AN communities across the country makes it an ideal social service agency to provide voter registration assistance. Another option is to automatically register qualified voters who visit DMVs or other social service agencies. Known as automatic voter registration, this policy makes political participation more convenient and has been adopted by more than 13 states to date.
Remove language barriers to voting
There are 567 federally recognized Indian Tribes, many of which have distinct languages and cultural backgrounds. In fact, more than 1 in 4 AI/AN people—27 percent—speak a language other than English at home. While Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain jurisdictions to provide language assistance at polling places, many have failed to comply fully.
In Alaska, for example, 1 in 5 residents identify as Alaska Native. As such, the whole state is covered for native languages under Section 203. Yet Yup’ik and Gwich’in speakers had to file multiple lawsuits against the state for failing to provide translated voting information and ballots and/or in-person language assistance at polling places. In Apache County, Arizona, more than half of the general population speaks a Native North American language. Yet translated ballots and readings of voting instructions in Native languages were unavailable during the early voting period of 2016. This presented significant barriers for Native peoples, especially elders, who often have low literacy and education rates and were unable to cast their ballots during early voting in 2016. While federal lawmakers must ensure full compliance with Section 203, states and counties should not wait for federal direction to ensure that all people, regardless of English proficiency, have access to the fundamental right to vote.
Eliminate strict voter ID laws
Even as numerous studies show that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in the United States, lawmakers across the country have adopted strict voter ID laws. In reality, these laws are not meant to address voter fraud; rather, they aim to suppress the voting power of marginalized communities, including American Indian communities. North Dakota, for example, enacted strict voter ID requirements that effectively disenfranchised almost 1 in 5 otherwise eligible American Indians. Among other requirements, the legislation mandated that voters present ID with a valid street address. But many people living on Indian reservations do not have an official residential street address. Instead, they rely on post office boxes to send and receive mail. While many American Indians in North Dakota possessed tribal documents and other forms of ID, they could not meet the proof-of-residency threshold required under state law for the 2014 election cycle. As a result, voter turnout in Rolette County, home to the Turtle Mountain Reservation, fell by 12 points even as statewide turnout held steady. Without the means to prove state residency at the polls, voters from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians were unable to cast their ballots. Relief for this tribe came only after several members challenged the new law in federal court. These restrictions are purposely discriminatory and must be repealed.
Expand the use of satellite polling stations
More than 1 in 5 AI/AN people live on reservations or other land trusts. In order to vote, residents of these remote areas often need to travel a long way to the official polling station at the county seat. This journey can be especially arduous for people who do not own automobiles. In Nevada, for example, more than 1 in 4 American Indians report that distance and difficulty traveling are a significant barrier to registration and voting. In fact, some members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Walker River Paiute Tribe had to travel almost 100 miles roundtrip to vote before a federal court granted them relief.
Geographic location should not determine American citizens’ access to democracy. Satellite polling stations offer lawmakers a solution to this persistent problem. When well-advertised and conveniently located on or near reservations, these polling stations make voting more accessible and may help improve turnout.
Reform mandatory vote-by-mail policies
Absentee voting is an important option for eligible voters who may have difficulty casting their ballots in person. However, vote-by-mail policies are not a perfect solution to the problem of low voter turnout. Indeed, for eligible voters who do not have convenient access to the postal service, these policies can actually make it more difficult to vote. Residents of San Juan County, Utah, saw this plainly when in 2014, the county began conducting mail-in-only elections. The county includes part of the Navajo Nation, and 75 percent of its residents do not have a street address. As a result, many residents rely on post office boxes, which are often located far from their homes. Residents may have to travel more than an hour to check their post office boxes, so most people check their mail just once per month. As a result, many Navajo people have missed deadlines to confirm registration and vote.
While vote by mail should be an option, interested counties and states should allow for some flexibility. Colorado, for example, currently operates mail-in elections but incorporates vote centers where an eligible voter can register and vote in person, if they prefer. As lawmakers reform election processes, they must consider how decisions would affect voter participation in marginalized communities, especially AI/AN communities.
While some Americans are empowered to participate in the U.S. policymaking process, AI/AN people have been marginalized and oppressed for centuries. This undermines democracy and accountability and promotes neglect of the unique challenges facing AI/AN communities. Beyond removing barriers and eliminating voter suppression, lawmakers must better engage with this population and begin crafting targeted solutions to the systemic issues it faces. All Americans deserve to have their voices heard and their problems addressed. The United States can and must do better.
Connor Maxwell is a research associate for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.