Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Native voters must be prepared on election day

Haskell Indian Nations University students produced their own take on Native Vote campaign posters. Brian Johnson produced this poster with model Charmayne Eldrige. Both students are from the Navajo Nation. As the election nears, tribes and organizations are using a variety of strategies to make sure every vote counts.

Less than a week to go until Election Day. It’s one thing to make the case that every American Indian and Alaska Native should vote. It’s another to make certain that the door to the voting booth is actually open and there is a ballot ready to go.

Across the country that’s the challenge.

One of my favorite ideas is simple. My tribe, The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall, Idaho, has sent out a list of all tribal members whose addresses cannot be confirmed by the county clerk. This catches up with people who’ve moved or for what ever reason have an address that cannot be confirmed. Randy’L Teton, the tribe’s public affairs manager, asked people on the list to stop by the tribal attorneys office to pick up their mail. And then go to the county elections office to update the address. Idaho is a good access state because voters can register at the polls on Election Day.

Many tribes, including Shoshone-Bannock, are offering free rides to the polls.

Get Out the Native Vote in Alaska has stepped up its messaging about how the state could be different if Natives voted in larger numbers. There is a Facebook campaign from the Alaska Federation of Native Convention last week where people posed with a sign explaining why they are voting. The reasons range from family to issues such as subsistence hunting and fishing. Alaska has recently improved voting access by adding more than a hundred early voting sites across the state.

One concern, however, is that there will not be enough ballots on Election Day. The state ran out of ballots in at least 18 locations, including one polling station where voters left in frustration. In Alaska, like many states, the law allows the use of a sample ballot as a substitute when there are not enough ballots. The problem in August, however, was that not every poll worker had that information.

Early voting stations are something that works — and many states have been reluctant to expand their use. Most of the times that expanded access comes about because of litigation (or the threat of litigation). In Montana and South Dakota satellite voting has been unfair; often available at a county seat but not on reservations making transportation a real barrier. That meant some residents had five weeks or so to vote while reservation residents had a single day.

But reservation-based satellite sites, or early voting, improve that access greatly. South Dakota recently opened new voting locations, but there remain communities, such as Crow Creek, that are still some 50 miles away from a poll. According to Think Progress the Buffalo County Clerk even turned down money to open an reservation early voting site.

But Minnesota is an example of a state reaching out to Native voters on its own. First, there’s same day registration, which always makes it easy to get more people involved in elections. And a tribal ID works just fine. Finally, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie opened up satellite voting sites on the White Earth, Leech Lake, and Red Lake reservations.

Two years ago Native voters were a key constituent group voting against a restrictive voter ID initiative.

This election there is a measure on the ballot in Montana that would restrict voting access. A Legislative Referendum would end same-day voting registration. Rhonda Whiting, chair of Western Native Voice, recently told Char-Koosta News: “LR-126, put on the ballot by politicians in our states legislature, will place unfair burdens on Native people, seniors, youth, and working families to cast their vote. If Montanans vote to pass LR-126, responsible, eligible voters would have their voice unfairly taken away.”

Another voting obstacle nationwide are states that enforce strict voter ID laws. A Texas law is already restricting voter participation.

Then there is a constant tension between those who want more citizens to participate in elections and those who see a smaller pool of voters as the best course to hold on to power.

That’s why Native Voters should be prepared. A guide to Voters Rights is on the Native Vote web site with phone numbers to hotlines to lawyers and other advocates.

As I said: It’s one thing to ask people to vote. It’s another to make sure we can vote.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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