Over the past year, a disintegration of voting rights has threatened Americans’ freedom across many states, and Native Americans are particularly affected. Despite vigorous debate earlier this month, Congress as a collective body did not pass the voting rights legislation – which would have ensured easier access to the polls. Native American voters and advocates must therefore rally at the ballot box this 2022 midterm election.
States passed 34 laws making it more difficult to vote in 2021 – more than any other year for at least a decade – and more than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access were introduced in 49 states across the country.
Native Americans have endured a long history of insidious voter suppression and continue to face substantial obstacles at every step in the electoral process. Voter ID laws are a particular challenge – many states and localities fail to recognize tribal identification cards as a method of voter validation. When North Dakota enacted its current ID law in 2017, a federal district court found that 19 percent of Native American residents lacked a qualifying ID compared to less than 12 percent of other potential voters. Further, many rural residents are far away from the nearest voting location, which poses a problem as restrictions on mail-in voting increase. A lack of equitable internet access among Native American households also reduces access to online voter registration and mail-in ballot requests.
Turnout among Native American voters will be consequential in determining some of the most competitive House and Senate races in the country this year. American Indian and Alaska Native voters had a massive influence in the last two election cycles and tend to vote in midterm congressional years at relatively high rates. A record-breaking number of Native American candidates ran for office in 2018, and high Native American voter turnout helped elect a record 6 Native Americans to Congress in 2020.
Restricting voting rights threatens to severely undermine Native American turnout in 2022. Take Arizona for instance, where a surge in voter turnout on tribal land helped Joe Biden to victory in a state that had not been won by a Democratic candidate since 1996. Arizona is one of 11 states named by the Brennan Center as having efforts underway that are most concerning to ballot access, and experts say the state’s redistricting process is being targeted to suppress Native voting power.
It is a shame Congress could not pass the voting rights legislation recently in its chambers. The Freedom To Vote Act would have helped protect the freedom to vote and end partisan redistricting. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which includes the Native American Voting Rights Act, would have taken key steps to eliminate voting restrictions, including provisions to improve access to voter registration, in-person voting, and mail-in voting. NARVA requires states with voter validation laws to recognize tribal IDs as a way for Native American voters to validate their identities, as well as requires states to establish polling places and voter registration sites at federal facilities located within tribal lands.
With many Native Americans facing re-election in 2022, there’s a lot at stake to protect equitable representation in Congress as well as access to the ballot in Indian Country. Congress should have passed these important reforms to safeguard voting rights and ensure Native American voices continue to be represented at every step of the electoral process. Since the voting rights legislation did receive enough votes from Republicans, however, the burden continues to rest with voters, who must make sure their vote and those of their families and friends are counted.
The above guest column was written by former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp
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