The Difficulties of Voting by Mail in Indian Country
It’s June now, and the novel coronavirus is not so novel anymore. Yet, it still influences decision-making on just about everything, including how we’ll vote in the many primaries yet to come and November’s general election. Will Americans be voting in polling places on Election Day, as most did in 2016, or will far more people vote by mail?
The Canvass addressed variations on this theme in March (Policy Decisions on Voting Outside Polling Places), April (State Responses to Coronavirus and Elections) and May (Why Elections Need Both Absentee and In-Person Voting). Each month’s lead article led to the next—and that’s true this month, too. Mail voting is likely to increase in 2020 as voters choose to request absentee ballots or election officials encourage mail voting by sending out ballot applications or even ballots to all registered voters. It’s worth noting, however, that mail elections may be convenient for many voters, but inconvenient for others. For many American Indian and Alaska Native voters, mail voting may be worse than inconvenient; for some, it verges on impossible.
Vote-by-mail advocates, who are trying this year to address public health concerns about polling places, don’t intend to make voting harder for American Indians or Alaska Natives, and there are ways that states moving toward more mail voting can mitigate its potential problems. This is especially important when the American Indian population is growing (from 4.1 million people in 2000 to 5.2 million in 2010), yet turnout is lower for the group than other racial or ethnic groups, according to an infographic from the National Congress of American Indians’ Native Vote project. Of course, turnout varies widely based on which tribe and the interests of individual voters.
Let’s cut to the chase. “Increased Vote by Mail is Great! All Vote by Mail is Not Great!” read the first slide Jacqueline De León, of the Native American Rights Fund, showed on NCSL’s May webinar, “Moving to All-Mail Elections: Promises and Challenges.” “We must provide safe, in-person voting options, especially in rural and high-poverty areas,” she said to accompany the slide—adding that Indian Country is often both rural and poor.
De León has an ally in Washington state: Secretary of State Kim Wyman. “Here in Washington we have 29 recognized tribes,” says Wyman. “They each have unique challenges, and they cannot all be met in the same way.” She pointed to the Yakima Nation’s decision to locate a ballot drop box near the community center and to permit its members to use the community center for their address.
While generalizations can be dangerous, here are some of the issues voting by mail can pose for American Indian and Alaska Native voters:
- On reservations or in other rural areas, it’s common to have a “nontraditional” address instead of a street address—or no address at all. Registering to vote is based on the geographic location of a home, and if that’s hard to identify, it’s hard to get registered.
- Because of poverty and the lack of housing on many reservations, homelessness—or couch surfing—is more common, again making registration harder.
- The postal service doesn’t deliver mail to many American Indian or Alaska Native homes—and therefore many of those voters can’t vote at home.
- Many American Indians in rural areas use P.O. boxes for mail delivery, but they cost money and are in short supply. Boxes are often shared as well, so ensuring that a ballot gets to the right person is tricky.
- Those P.O. boxes could easily be 20-40 miles away, on rough dirt roads that, depending on the weather, may be impassable. County seats can easily be even farther away, so making a trip to town to get a ballot is hard too.
- Mail delivery can take a long time in rural areas. Voters may not receive their ballots in time to vote, or the returned ballots may not arrive by the voting deadline, even when voters send them in ahead of time.
All of this, according to De León, “means that mail is lost, there are long lapses and conceivably people miss an entire election cycle before they receive their mail.”
Voting challenges in Indian Country aren’t all about the mail, though. They’re also about English fluency. Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico, Utah and Texas have Native populations with enough nonproficient English speakers that the Native languages are “covered” by section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. That means that in some jurisdictions, bilingual ballots and voting materials must be provided in Alaskan Athabaskan, Apache, Choctaw, Inupiat, Navajo, Pueblo, Ute or a catch-all group for all other languages, according to the Department of Justice’s most recent determination of covered languages.
Then there’s everyday literacy. Ballots and the instructions that go with them may not be easily understood by anyone with low literacy, American Indian or otherwise. (By providing design guidance, the Center for Civic Design can help make voting easier for everyone.) While literacy can pose a problem for in-person voters, too, polling places have staff who can explain the process.
“What we need is cooperation with state and county officials to provide safe in-person voting options,” says De León. But because Native communities, such as the Navajo Nation, have been hard hit by COVID-19, even that is challenging.
The solution, says De León, is to continue to offer in-person voting on tribal lands, preferably over the course of an ample early voting period. That will both keep crowds down (and therefore limit opportunities for catching or spreading the virus) and accommodate more voters who must travel a long distance. Curbside voting would work well, too, and there’s every reason to train tribal members to be election officials and poll workers.
Since 2017, at least six states have considered bills specifically addressing the needs of American Indian voters, whereas between 2011 and 2016, no bills of this nature were introduced.
- Washington in 2019 enacted SB 5079, the Native American Voting Rights Act, becoming the first state to have one. The act specifies that ballot drop locations be situated on tribal lands, and it allows the use of a tribal building as a voter’s home address, thus accommodating voters who move frequently.
- Montana in 2019 adopted HJR 10, which calls for an interim study to identify and address barriers to voting by American Indians in the state.
- Colorado in 2019 enacted HB19-1278, which allows voters living on reservations to use alternative addresses for voter registration and enables tribes to request vote centers and ballot drop box locations on tribal lands.
- California is currently considering AB 2314, which would create the Native American Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee to “establish guidelines for reaching as many Native American voters as practical” and “make recommendations to improve the recruitment of Native American poll workers,” among other goals.
- Nevada in 2017 enacted SB 492, a bill that requires counties to set up a polling place on a reservation at a location determined in consultation with the tribe.
- New Mexico in 2017 had three bills proposed to create a Native American Voting Taskforce; when session ended with no enactments, the secretary of state created the task force on her own.
This trendlet, not surprisingly, comes from western states with large American Indian populations. Voting by mail has largely been a western phenomenon, too.
What else can legislators do to ensure changes to voting methods don’t harm American Indian and Alaska Native voters? Legislators can connect with members of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. They can ask to meet with tribal leaders on a reservation. They can require that elections information be screened for literacy level, something that would benefit many voters. And as their states move toward more mail, they can require that some in-person and on-reservation voting remain available, no matter what.
To learn more about American Indian voting generally, read the Native American Voting Rights Coalition’s report, “Obstacles at Every Turn: Barriers to Political Participation Faced by Native American Voters,” on a series of field hearings held in Indian Country in 2017 and 2018.