As Republicans push voter suppression laws across the country, several high-profile voting rights bills in Congress have taken center stage this session. Yet, there is another essential, but often-overshadowed, piece of legislation focused on a population routinely subjected to voter suppression efforts throughout history: Native Americans. After all Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1924, it took another 40 years for all states to allow Native Americans to vote, with discrimination at the ballot box continuing to the present day.
In August, Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) introduced the Frank Harrison, Elizabeth Peratrovich and Miguel Trujillo Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA), H.R. 5008. Davids and Cole are members of the Ho-Chunk Nation and Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, respectively. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) led the introduction of the Senate’s companion bill a few days prior.
In this piece, we break down the Act and explain how key provisions tackle the unique barriers to voting faced by Native American communities.
How does the NAVRA improve access to the ballot?
During the 2020 elections, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation — which is approximately the size of Delaware — had only two election offices and four ballot drop-off locations. In geographically isolated communities, sufficient access to physical voting sites is an uphill battle. The NAVRA mandates a minimum of one polling place — at a location selected by the Tribe — in each precinct with eligible voters, regardless of population. To streamline the addition of more polling places, a state must consider factors to ensure more equitable voting opportunities. Such factors include the distance voters must travel, weather and modes of transportation that can impact travel time, access to public transit and wait times at the polls.
In recognizing the barriers to in-person voting, the NAVRA adds uniform safeguards to mail-in voting in states that permit it. States that do not permit mail-in voting must establish it for those residing on Indian lands if deemed necessary by the Act’s framework for equitable voting opportunities. Furthermore, the Act permits community ballot collection, an often crucial means for Native American voters to participate in elections. Several states ban, or severely limit, ballot collection assistance. In Montana, for example, a person may collect only up to six ballots. These types of burdens disproportionately hurt Native American voters who live in remote areas with limited access to transportation and postal services. In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that criminalized ballot collection, paving the way for more states to restrict this benign method of casting a vote. The NAVRA ensures that current and future restrictions do not prevent residents who rely on ballot collection from participating in elections. A voter who resides on federally recognized Indian lands can designate someone else — any family member (including extended family), caregivers, household members or a tribal assistance provider — to return their sealed ballot, with no limit on how many ballots they may collect.
How does the NAVRA push back against laws that specifically burden Native American voters?
In the face of an increasing number of states requiring state-issued identification to vote, the Act demands that tribal-issued IDs be equally recognized. This includes any ID “issued by a federally recognized Indian Tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service or any other Tribal or federal agency.” In 2017, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) signed a restrictive voter ID law that required identification with a street address, which presented an undue burden for people living on reservations. The state was sued and ultimately reached an agreement to accept tribal IDs, tribal-designated street addresses or allow voters to locate their residence on a map. The NAVRA protects against similar discriminatory ID laws.
Nontraditional addresses don’t just impact voter ID, but the process of voter registration itself. For example, in 2012, 500 Navajo voters had their voter registration status purged by election officials on the basis that their addresses were “too obscure.” For Native voters without an address, the NAVRA permits them to list a designated building for the purpose of voter registration.
How do we know these new protections would be enforced properly?
Considering the distinctive needs within Indian Country, the NAVRA establishes a voting task force grant program run by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission. According to the Act, grant applicants will work in each state with federally recognized Indigenous Nations to improve voter outreach and education, recruit and train poll workers and nonpartisan poll watchers, participate in redistricting efforts, facilitate collaboration between overlapping jurisdictions and more. Notably, the task force will improve language access to the ballot. Another provision in the NAVRA mandates voting materials be translated into minority languages and carves out an exemption for verbal voting assistance if the given language is oral or written translation is not culturally permitted.
Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) mandates that certain states and counties must provide language assistance to voters if that language-minority group composes a certain percentage of the population. Alaskan Native and American Indian language-minority groups have been protected by Section 203 since 1975. However, as other provisions of the VRA have been weakened by Supreme Court rulings in the past few years, the NAVRA contains important enforcement provisions. It outlines how an individual, Indigenous Nation or the U.S. Attorney General can seek relief and the delineated changes to elections that require prior administrative review. Furthermore, the Act empowers federal election observers and promotes uniformity in election laws across Indian Country.
What’s the Act’s path to passage?
Some version of a Native American voting rights bill has been introduced in every Congress since 2014, but never moved forward. This year so far, there are 15 co-sponsors in the House in addition to Davids and Cole, and 17 original co-sponsors in the Senate. Considering the renewed focus on voting rights following the 2020 election and overwhelming support from the Democratic caucus on other election bills this session, the NAVRA should gain more momentum than previous sessions.