Attorneys, advocates reflect on new Native American Voting Rights bill

The U.S. Capitol dome in the spring. (Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol)

Some people with stakes in Indigenous voter rights are looking to the Native American Voting Rights Act to help address voting and election problems for Oklahoma tribes.

“This legislation greatly improves the tools and resources available to help Native Americans exercise their right to vote, which is especially important for those living in rural areas,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said when he introduced the bill to the House alongside U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., on Aug. 13.

Native Organizers Alliance is a volunteer group known for helping to organize and build Indigenous community leaders and groups. One primary objective has been getting Native voters registered for tribal, state and national elections.

The alliance serves several tribes and states across the nation, including Oklahoma. Jennifer Bailey, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe, volunteers there when needed.

Bailey hopes the Native American Voting Rights Act will address some of the long-standing concerns she’s had for voting participation in her own tribe.

“A lot of them don’t trust the voting process,” Bailey said. “They feel like it’s built against them. In reality, it is the voter suppression that’s a tactic to refrain Native Americans from actually voting and exercising their rights to vote. Voting rights is a trust responsibility by the federal government to the Native Americans. It’s a constitutional right for everybody.”

Victoria Holland, a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, said only a small portion of eligible voters in her tribe actually vote.

“I am sure this would also be reflected in national elections,” Holland said. “While there are several reasons this could be, lack of access shouldn’t be one of them.”

​Holland is an attorney with Devol and Associates, working with several Oklahoma tribes. She said she supports the Native American Voting Rights Act because it addresses obstacles that can make voting inaccessible to Indigenous people.

Besides the obvious – lacking trust in the federal government after centuries of cultural and physical genocide – Bailey said, additional obstacles in Oklahoma hamper tribal voting.

The main complaint of Native voters, Bailey said, is that tribal identification cards often aren’t an acceptable form of ID to enter the polls or register to vote. Many tribal members don’t have a state-issued ID.

“I think this (bill) is just going to be something that will potentially increase voters for Native Americans in Oklahoma,” Bailey said.

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The voting rights bill addresses voting problems on reservations and tribal service areas. Another obstacle to Indigenous voters is that some states, including Montana, require a physical address to register to vote. Many tribal citizens who live on tribal land have mail delivered to a post office box.

Other states prohibit hand-delivering other people’s ballots. Indigenous residents of reservations often share cars, sometimes needing family members or friends to deliver the ballots for them or their families.

The bill, if passed, would allow states to implement polling places near tribal land or service areas, and tribes would have a say in where to put them. Tribes also will be notified directly of the number of voting locations in their communities, Bailey said.

Funding is another area the bill is supposed to address, Bailey said. A $10 million allowance is built into the bill for a Native American Voting Rights Task Force grant, which is meant to help make voting easier for Native people.

A.J. Ferate of Counsel, Spencer Fane LLP, a law firm in Oklahoma City, said he is willing to hear more about the voting rights bill to learn the nuances of its impact on Indian Country.

But in his two years practicing election law, including working with several Oklahoma tribes, he doesn’t think the real issue in getting Indigenous people to vote lies in state or federal elections.

The problem, he said, lies in the integrity of voting in many of the communities.

“What is a concern to me is the voting structure, the voting systems, the integrity of voting within Indian Country,” Ferate said. “I feel like that’s significantly more of a concern that needs to be addressed.”

He said the lack of separation of powers in some tribal governments can cause problems in keeping certain structures of the government accountable.

“That’s one of the difficult things I see across tribes,” Ferate said. “These judges hold their jobs because the chief appointed them, or the chief hired them. And the chief has the power to remove them. That’s the meaningful problem right? I mean, if you’re hired to be a Supreme Court justice, and the tribe is one of the parties you are hearing arguments against, even these judges feel like their jobs are in jeopardy if they were to go against the tribe.”

Although these issues exist on some level in all governments, on the federal level, Congress has seen historic changes in the political participation and inclusion of Indigenous folks.

Bailey called the recent appointments of Native people to key federal positions, including Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior, a promising sign.

For Holland, it’s a testament to Indigenous resiliency.

“Anytime there is an Indigenous person in high-ranking capacity I think that is just a testament to how far, and how resilient, Indigenous people are,” Holland said. “There was a time, not long ago, where Indigenous people were supposed to be terminated. We weren’t supposed to be here today, but we are. We are doing important things and it’s inspiring.”

Gaylord News is a Washington, D.C.-based reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Cronkite News has partnered with OU to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.