An effort to expand voting access in Native American communities is moving through the U.S. House of Representatives, but sponsors expect opposition if the initiative reaches the Senate.
The Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., would provide $10 million a year over the next 15 years to tribes, secretaries of state and nonprofits working to break down geographic, technological and linguistic barriers to voting.
Supporters of the bill, which is co-sponsored by 93 Democrats and one Republican in the House, expect a challenge in a Republican-controlled Senate that has been hostile to other recent efforts to expand voting access.
“With states disenfranchising Native voters, the importance of passing this legislation cannot be understated,” Luján said in a statement to The New Mexican. “If [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] and others continue to deny House-passed bills their day, we will demand that they explain their support for the disenfranchisement of Native communities and Tribal governments.”
The bill is awaiting a vote in both the House Administration Committee and the House Judiciary Committee before a vote on the House floor would send it to the Senate. The legislation would allow tribes, state governments and nonprofits to apply for grants to fund efforts to protect Native Americans’ access to voting, such as promoting voter registration and increasing polling sites.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said she would be interested in using new federal funds for more mobile voting units — trucks or vans that bring voting machines and polling staff to rural areas for registration and early voting.
“Obviously, it’s easiest when the ballot box comes to you,” Toulouse Oliver said in a phone interview. “It’s important to note that even though the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, to this day Native Americans in New Mexico struggle to have equal access to the ballot box. A lot of that has to do with rural and digital divides.”
Toulouse Oliver also said rural Native American tribes typically turn out to vote at a rate 6 percent lower than the state average.
Last year, the U.S. House passed the For the People Act of 2019, which includes automatic voter registration, and the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which limits states’ ability to discriminate through redistricting.
Both bills have been waiting for a hearing in a Senate committee for about a year.
“In 2020, a presidential election year, it’s more important than ever to improve voter access across the nation and in Indian Country,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement to The New Mexican. “With every election cycle, state and local jurisdictions come up with new ways to deny Native Americans equal access to the ballot box.”
According to the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019, Native voters make up around 10 percent of the voting population in Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota. The bill also says more than 1 million Native Americans are eligible to vote but are not registered.
“As an organizer, I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be for Native communities to vote,” U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., said in a statement to The New Mexican. “We’re continuing to push for subcommittee hearings in the House, however, with the way Republican leadership is working in the Senate, it’s unclear if the bill will see the light of day in that chamber. It speaks volumes about the Republican strategy to disenfranchise voters.”
Since the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, the bill says, states have historically disenfranchised Native people by excluding residents of American Indian reservations from voter rolls, requiring them to terminate their relationship with their tribes and take literacy tests to vote.
The bill also says Native Americans face a lack of accessible registration and polling sites because of geographical challenges, lack of paved roads, and the absence of reliable and affordable broadband connectivity. Voter outreach and voting materials often are not available in Native languages, and there is an insufficient number of trained bilingual poll workers.
“Unfortunately, there are many obstacles in Indian Country that stand in the way of Native Americans’ ability to vote — from language barriers and burdensome voter ID requirements to the locations of polling places for remote and rural communities,” U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a fellow New Mexico Democrat and co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said in a statement to The New Mexican.
“Our nation’s democracy is founded on the right to vote and the ability of every citizen to participate in that process equally.”