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Ensure equal voting access for Native Americans

| March 27, 2022 12:00 AM

A White House report released last week calls upon local, state and federal officials to do more to ensure that Native Americans have equal access to voting ballots.

The states with the largest percentage of Native Americans and Alaska Natives are Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana.

The 54-page report notes a range of challenges Indigenous voters face, including language barriers, a lack of accessibility for those with disabilities, cultural disrespect and outright hostility, the consequences of extreme physical distance from polling places and persistent poverty, along with election-specific barriers.

The Biden administration's report comes a year after he issued an executive order promoting voting rights and establishing a steering committee to look at particular barriers to voting in Indigenous communities, according to the Associated Press.

"For far too long, members of tribal nations and Native communities have faced unnecessary burdens when they attempt to exercise their sacred right to vote," the White House said.

Congress has been called upon to act by passing voting rights legislation, but state leaders are also being tasked with creating enhanced safeguards for Native American voters.

We agree it’s beyond time that both federal and state leaders do what’s right to ensure equal access to voting ballots for Native Americans. The right to vote is paramount and one that should be defended for everyone, especially by those in a position of power to do so.

The White House report points out examples of the barriers Native American voters face right here in Montana.

Extreme physical distances is one of those barriers with one Tribal leader in Montana noting that it could take more than an hour’s drive for some Tribal residents to get to a location to register to vote.

The report points out that Montana is one of the states that has enacted new barriers that re-establish problems that were previously mitigated when it comes to voting. Montana implemented a same-day registration law in 2005 allowing registration and voting to take place at the polls on the same day, but in 2021 Montana repealed that opportunity forcing voters to make two trips of multiple hours apiece just to exercise the right to vote.

The report goes on to point out that Native Americans often face outright hostility in their attempt to vote. A tribal leader on the Blackfeet reservation said a county election refused to comply with a county directive to provide ballot drop boxes on the reservation and only did so three days before the election after an outcry.

Passing voting protection laws won’t be enough, it’s also incumbent upon elected officials to make sure that those laws are followed.

A trio of lawsuits challenging new state election laws passed by the Montana Legislature last year questions whether they infringe on Montanans’ constitutional right to vote. One of those laws ended same-day voter registration. Another bill outlawed paid ballot collection, which has been pointed to as playing a crucial role in enabling Native Americans to vote as groups often pay folks to pick up and deliver ballots to the ballot box on behalf of voters who can’t make it themselves.

Though Montana is fifth — at 9% — on the list of states with the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a leader in the area of protecting voting rights and removing voting barriers faced by Native Americans.