There are a record number of Native American candidates running this year. That’s good, right? But it also begs the question: What would it take to improve voter turnout in Indian Country?
This is Trahant Reports.
There are more than a hundred days until the next election and there remain many questions about the structure and integrity of elections.
This is important because America is governed by those who vote. And those who can easily vote.
Take Nye County, Nevada. If a voter from Duckwater Shoshone Tribe wants to cast a ballot on election day they need to drive to Tonapah. That’s 137 miles and more than 2 hours each way. And that’s when the weather is good.
Nevada’s solution is a vote by mail plan something that many tribal citizens either find impractical or do not trust the process itself. Two years ago Nevada tribes sued the state and two more polling sites were added, but no new polling locations in Nye County because it was considered too expensive.
James Tucker with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) said state laws gives county officials discretion to not provide in person voting opportunities if there are not enough registered voters. And that is a really perverse process because we have instances in which there are plenty of people who are eligible to to vote like in the Duck Valley Reservation in northern Nevada. He said there are upwards of about 800 to 900 people eligible to vote, but at the time 2016, only about 175 were actually registered. Because there was no in-person voting location, it makes it even less likely that people are going to want to register to vote.
Tucker spoke at the Native American Journalists Association conference in Miami last week. NARF and the Native American Voting Rights Coalition had held field hearings across the country collecting data and stories about obstacles to voting.
It’s a particular challenge to improve the structure of elections when several states are making it more difficult. North Dakota continues to press (after losing several legal challenges) for restrictions in a state that once prided itself on easy access to voting. As Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, said recently at a Senate hearing, “Why should we have to sue every year in North Dakota to get voting rights for Native people?”
Then, there is the problem of people not voting anyway. The United States has long been unusual for its low turnout in elections. More than 100 million potential voters do not vote. And Indian Country is at the short end of that measure, too. According to the Native Vote project only 66 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are eligible to vote, compared to 74 percent of eligible non-Hispanic Whites. That means 34 percent of the total Native population over 18 are not registered.
And it’s that potential of a million voters that could upend the system, especially in states with a significant Native American population.
I am Mark Trahant.