OPINION: Make voting easier for Native Americans on reservations now

by Jean Reith Schroedel | Claremont Graduate University
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:48 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: U.S. Democratic Congressional candidate Deb Haaland, who is trying to become the first Native American woman in the U.S. House of Representatives, hugs Dottie Tiger at a Native Vote Celebration on midterm elections night in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As the U.S presidential election nears, lack of mail delivery on reservations are critical barriers to voting for Native Americans

By Jean Reith Schroedel, professor emerita of political science at Claremont Graduate University

During a visit in 2016 to the Duck Valley Native American Reservation that straddles the Idaho-Nevada border, I learned that the reservation did not have a single place where people could cast an in-person vote.

According to elders of the Shoshone-Paiute tribe, county officials had closed the polling place at least ten years earlier to save costs.

Without a polling place, residents had to travel nearly 200 miles round trip to the city of Elko to vote in-person.  Depending upon gas prices, that could cost $20-30.  And many Native Americans say they are skeptical about voting by mail and don’t trust it.

Such obstacles are significant as the U.S presidential election on Nov. 3 nears.

As a professor emerita of political science at Claremont Graduate University researching voting rights and suppression among Native Americans, I’m aware of the lack of residential mail delivery on reservations but I had never thought about what that meant in concrete terms.

Given the increasing importance of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to focus part of my research to examine mail access and delivery times on the Navajo Nation reservation. The Navajo Nation is larger than West Virginia but has only 40 postal locations as opposed to 725 in West Virginia.

I partnered with the Native American voting rights non-profit, Four Directions, and we mailed letters, with tracking, from postal offices on the reservation and in different off-reservation locations in Arizona.

We tracked the progress of the letters, checking both distances traveled and the time to reach county election offices.  The differences were enormous.

Every one of the letters from off-reservations post offices arrived within the United States Postal Service’s standard 1-3 days for first class mail delivery.

But only half of the reservation letters arrived in that period and some took as long as 6-10 days.

In addition, the routing of the reservation letters was much different, often traveling out of state before being re-routed back to Arizona.

Despite clear evidence showing differences in access and slowness of mail delivery, members of the Navajo Nation lost their recent voting rights case.

The litigation did pressure county election officials to massively expand the number of drop box locations on the reservations - a step forward. But one that still falls short of addressing the structural inequities that make voting in Indian country so much harder.

While the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act granted U.S. citizenship to all indigenous people’s born within the country, it did not ensure the right to vote.  The Constitution gives states the power to determine “times, places and manner of holding elections,” which allowed states for decades to continue disenfranchising Native Americans.

Since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), there have been more than 100 voting rights cases involving Native Americans.  Because the abuses typically occur in isolated rural areas, they garner little national attention.

I would urge U.S. Congress to enact voting rights legislation and help fund groups, such as the Native American Rights Fund and Four Directions, who are at the forefront of these struggles.

And as more people become aware of the issues, we may be able to speed up that movement towards justice.