Voting for All Americans: Native Americans

7/20/2021

Map of American Indian and Alaska Native territory in the United States

Click map to enlarge.

Overview

Native American are citizens of the United States and have the right to vote in federal, state and local elections. That may seem obvious, but it hasn’t always been the case.

The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, spelled out the right to vote for all U.S. citizens regardless of race (“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”). But it wasn’t until the Snyder Act of 1924 explicitly declared Native Americans to be U.S. citizens that they became eligible to vote. Yet, legal barriers remained, and the last—a provision in Arizona’s Constitution expressly denying Native Americans their right to vote—was struck down in 1948.

While overt prohibitions on voting by Native Americans are a thing of the past, these voters, especially if they live on reservations, may still face challenges distinct from those faced by others: rural locations, no residential mail delivery, housing insecurity and more. At the same time, these problems are not unique to Native Americans, and solutions to the challenges they face often aid other voters as well. For instance, rural voters everywhere may face issues with postal service, and voters with limited literacy or English proficiency on and off reservations can benefit from plain-language elections materials.

Native Americans can also vote in tribal elections—think of them as having dual citizenship in two sovereign nations, the U.S. and their tribe.

The following sections outline:

  • Population and Turnout in Indian Country.
  • Potential impediments to voting for Native American and Alaska Native citizens.
  • State Policies on Voting and Their Impact.
  • Recent Legislation Specifically Addressing Voting for Native Americans.

Population and Turnout in Indian Country

The American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) population is growing: 4.1 million people were counted in the 2000 decennial census, increasing to 5.2 million in 2010, according to a 2010 Census Brief. The population is expected to be still larger when the 2020 census data is released.

Despite a growing population, turnout for AI/AN registered voters is 1 to 10 percentage points lower than the rates for other racial and ethnic groups, according to an infographic from the National Congress of American Indians’ Native Vote project. Of course, turnout varies widely based on tribe and the interests of individual voters. In the 2020 presidential election, turnout in some precincts on Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona rose by 12% and 13%, according to analysis from The Associated Press.

Registration affects turnout, too. Over a third (34%) of the AI/AN population is not registered to vote—notably higher than the 26.5% of non-Hispanic whites who are eligible but unregistered, and some of Native Americans’ barriers to voting are also barriers to registration.

State

Percentage American Indian
and Alaska Native Population

State

Percentage American Indian
and Alaska Native Population

Alabama

1.41%

Montana

8.46%

Alaska

20.26%

Nebraska

2.26%

Arizona

6.30%

Nevada

2.79%

Arkansas

2.05%

New Hampshire

0.92%

California

2.76%

New Jersey

1.15%

Colorado

2.76%

New Mexico

12.30%

Connecticut

1.21%

New York

1.64%

Delaware

1.39%

North Carolina

2.34%

Florida

1.02%

North Dakota

6.78%

Georgia

1.15%

Ohio

0.92%

Hawaii

2.67%

Oklahoma

13.99%

Idaho

2.88%

Oregon

3.48%

Illinois

1.12%

Pennsylvania

0.91%

Indiana

0.99%

Rhode Island

1.91%

Iowa

1.07%

South Carolina

1.13%

Kansas

2.39%

South Dakota

10.48%

Kentucky

0.86%

Tennessee

1.13%

Louisiana

1.41%

Texas

1.67%

Maine

1.55%

Utah

2.30%

Maryland

1.34%

Vermont

1.30%

Massachusetts

1.09%

Virginia

1.28%

Michigan

1.59%

Washington

3.47%

Minnesota

2.20%

West Virginia

0.84%

Mississippi

1.06%

Wisconsin

1.82%

Missouri

1.43%

Wyoming

3.81%

Percentages based on the Census Bureau's population estimates.

Potential Impediments to Voting by Native Americans and Alaska Natives

The Native American Voting Rights Coalition sums up the issue this way, in Obstacles at Every Turn: Barriers to Political Participation Faced by Native American Voters: “The first people on the land should not be the last to vote.”

While generalizations can be dangerous, below we summarize some of the issues that can pose difficulties for AI/AN voters:

  • Geography. On reservations or in other rural areas, “nontraditional” addresses, or homes with no address at all, are common. 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.
  • Mail service. The Postal Service doesn’t deliver mail to many Native American or Alaska Native homes; therefore, many of those voters can’t reliably receive election materials, including absentee/mail ballots. Many Native Americans in rural areas use P.O. boxes for mail delivery, but those cost money and may be in short supply. For those reasons, boxes are often shared, so ensuring that a ballot gets to the right person is tricky. Distances to these post offices can also be far. Mail delivery may also take longer in rural areas. Longer postal transit time could mean ballots aren’t back at the election office in time to be counted.
  • Poor roads and vast distances. Getting around in Indian Country isn’t easy. Dirt roads may become impassable after bad weather, and the distances between voters and other resources may be huge. The Navajo Nation, for example, is approximately the size of West Virginia. In such circumstances, voters’ P.O. boxes could easily be 20-40 miles from their homes, and county seats even further, so making a trip to town to get a ballot is hard. On some reservations, like the Duck Water Reservation in Nevada, traveling to in-person voting can be over 100 miles roundtrip. Some Standing Rock Sioux tribal members have to travel over 50 miles to the nearest South Dakota Department of Motor Vehicles office.
  • The digital divide. Broadband availability is generally worse in rural and poor regions, including tribal lands. Without reliable access to the internet, communications with election officials (such as online voter registration, online requests for absentee ballots and communications about missing ballots) can be difficult.
  • Housing insecurity. Because of poverty and the lack of housing on many reservations, homelessness—or couch surfing—is more common, again making voter registration harder.
  • English fluency and literacy. Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and Utah have AI/AN populations with enough nonproficient English speakers that one or more 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 catchall group for all other languages, according to the Department of Justice’s most recent determination of covered languages, from 2017. The next determination will come in 2022.
  • Literacy. Like in other high-poverty communities, low literacy rates are a concern in Indian Country. Making sure that voting materials and ballots are written in plain language—not legalese—can make a difference.

State Policies on Voting and Their Potential Impact

elections dropboxStates have traditionally assumed that election policies that are good for most voters make good laws. Sometimes, though, election laws can have unintended or adverse consequences for different segments of the voting population, such as Native Americans. Navigating the tension between a desire for uniformity for all voters (urban/rural; well-resourced/poor; politically active/disconnected, etc.) and a desire to help specific, marginalized demographics is a challenge in every state.

In the case of Native American voters, here are a few examples of the consequences from policy choices and potential ways to mitigate those effects:

  • All-mail voting. Seven states have adopted all-mail voting, and all but one are in the West, where the percentage of Native American voters is high. With this system, all voters are mailed a paper ballot to vote at home and return through the mail or at a designated drop box. Native American voters, however, may not have a mailbox or even a fixed address and therefore getting a ballot to them may be difficult. Mail delivery times may be longer on tribal lands as well.
  • Reducing in-person voting. As some states begin to rely more on absentee/mail voting, they may also choose to reduce in-person voting options to minimize costs. Such decisions have a greater impact on Native American communities than others. In these communities, in-person voting is the cultural norm. If early voting can be provided on the reservation, then voters can combine voting with other errands to the tribal headquarters. Using mobile registration and voting stations can help.
  • Ballot collection laws. Laws specifying who can collect and return voted ballots is a trend based on the idea of preventing undue influence (or worse) as people other than the voter handle a ballot. And yet in some Native American communities without access to residential mail delivery, limited access to transportation, and a culture of sharing rides and errands, allowing someone besides the voter to return an absentee ballot may be the only way to get it returned.
  • Registration requirements. Requiring citizens who are registering to vote to show a document with a traditional mailing address can be problematic for some Native American voters. Allowing voters to register using the address of tribal headquarters (as is now possible in Washington state) or by identifying on a map where their residence is can help.
  • Forms of voter ID. In states with voter ID requirements for in-person voting, adding a tribal ID as an allowed form of identification may make sense. Some tribal IDs do not include photos, or expiration dates, and an accommodation for those could be made.

How can lawmakers ensure changes to voting methods don’t harm AI/AN voters? Legislators can develop relationships with tribal leaders and learn about local conditions on reservations. They can encourage the recruitment of AI/AN people to serve as poll workers, they can encourage or even require that elections information be screened for literacy level (something that would benefit many voters), and they can ensure that state and local election services are provided appropriately.

Legislators can connect with members of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators.

Recent Legislation Specifically Addressing Voting for Native Americans

Since 2017, at least eight states have considered bills specifically addressing the needs of Native American voters, whereas between 2011 and 2016, no bills on this topic were introduced.

In 2017, New Mexico had three bills proposed to create a Native American Voting Task Force; when session ended with no enactments, the secretary of state created the task force on her own.

State

Year

Bill

Status

Summary

California

2020

AB 2314

Enacted

Requires the secretary of state to form a “Native American Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee,” which would “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.

Colorado

2019

HB19-1278

Enacted

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.

Indiana

2021

HB 1485

Enacted

Expands definition of “identification” to include tribal ID.

Montana

2021

SB 196

Enacted

Requires the governing body of an Indian reservation to sign off before limiting the hours of the polling places on Indian reservations.

Montana

2019

HJR 10

Adopted

Calls for an interim study to identify and address barriers to voting by American Indians in the state.

Nevada

2021

AB 321

Enacted

Among other things, extends the deadline for Indian tribes to request the establishment of a polling place and/or ballot drop box.

Nevada

2021

AB 432

Enacted

Allows tribal agencies to register as automatic voter registration agencies for their tribal members.

Nevada

2017

SB 492

Enacted

Requires counties to set up a polling place on a reservation at a location determined in consultation with the tribe.

New Mexico

2021

HB 231

Enacted

Provides protections to Native American polling places (by requiring they not be moved/consolidated without tribal sign off and requires the state provide polling places in certain circumstances)

Washington

2019

SB 5079

Enacted

Specifies that ballot drop locations be situated on tribal lands and allows the use of a tribal building as a voter’s home address, thus accommodating voters who move frequently. Known as the Native American Voting Rights Act, the first of its kind.

Wyoming

2020

HB 26

Enacted

Allows tribal ID cards to be used to register to vote.


Resources and Acknowledgements