Experts worry push for 2020 mail voting could leave Native American voters behind

Struggles with mail access, internet and language barriers could be amplified.

May 7, 2020, 6:40 AM

As many election officials across the country move to bolster vote by mail efforts in their states amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some leaders in Native American communities are worried their voters could be left behind if voting by mail becomes the overwhelming norm for conducting the 2020 election.

Their concerns are largely rooted in existing hurdles facing some Native Americans living in rural communities and who, as a result, would not be able to easily access the resources necessary to register and vote in a predominately all-mail election.

As outlined by the Native American Rights Fund, an organization that provides legal assistance to tribes and Native American individuals, the potential obstacles range from issues with access to traditional mail services, to a lack of broadband connectivity, and in some cases, cultural communication barriers. Experts also point out that high poverty rates and some states’ voter identification requirements create even more potential roadblocks for Native Americans seeking to cast their ballots.

PHOTO: Steve Yankton and Nathaniel Badmilk speak to drivers during a lockdown at the entrance to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., April 15, 2020.
Steve Yankton and Nathaniel Badmilk speak to drivers during a lockdown at the entrance to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., April 15, 2020.
Andrew Hay/Reuters

“We've tried to point out to people -- you got to stack all of these things on top of each other,” Natalie Landreth, a senior staff attorney with Native American Rights Fund said in an interview with ABC News.

“Having a rural, non-traditional address, no home mail delivery and being forced into a situation where you have to use a P.O. box causes all of these practical hurdles that people seem unaware of as they're advocating universally that vote by mail is so rad,” Landreth said.

Challenges with traditional postal services

One of the biggest mail voting obstacles facing Native American communities is rooted in a basic requirement of the post office -- having a traditional street address in order to receive and send mail, which isn’t typical for many Native communities and reservations.

“Many Native Americans don’t get mail delivered to their homes, they just don't,” Landreth says.

“Most reservations do not get home mail delivery, and the reason for this is that they will frequently have what are called ‘non-traditional mailing addresses’,” she explained.

Over the years, the Native American Rights Fund has held a number of field hearings aimed at documenting these unique voting challenges, and Landreth says Native Americans who offered insights would generally describe their non-traditional addresses in terms of physical markers, rather than street names or city grid numbers.

“Someone at the Tuba City, Arizona hearing said his address is ‘I'm the Hogan located three miles down the road from the Hard Rock chapter house’,” Landreth said, “It's a descriptive address -- he can't put that on a form, he doesn't get physical mail, [and] he has to go to a P.O. box.”

PHOTO: A road sign outside Bloomfield, N.M., warns Navajos to stay home during their nation's 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus, on April 7, 2020.
A road sign outside Bloomfield, N.M., warns Navajos to stay home during their nation's 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus, on April 7, 2020.
Andrew Hay/Reuters

While Native Americans without traditional mail addresses frequently rely on using P.O. boxes for sending and receiving mail, the practice is riddled with logistical hurdles because P.O. boxes are located at physical post offices, and in some cases, people have to travel vast distances in order to actually use them.

“People from the Navajo Nation testified they travel 140 miles round trip to get to their P.O. box, so they only go once every week or two, and when you have gas money,” Landreth said.

Additionally, some rural post offices -- which are often the closest to Native American reservations -- are only open during limited hours. The shortened operating hours put more constraints on when and how communities are able to send and receive mail.

The administration of mail ballots relies on a series of timelines that require postmarked deadlines which often do not mix well with logistical impediments. Complicated rural mail route logistics paired with the fact that many Native American families share P.O. boxes among themselves or with other families could also result in delays of ballot processing, or even prevent some individuals from obtaining voter registration forms in a timely manner.

“Often rural mail will be collected and postmarked somewhere else,” Landreth says. “So if you mailed [your ballot] on election day or the day before, even two days before, it's going to look like it's late through no fault of your own.”

During a panel discussion about voting during the coronavirus pandemic, experts from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice acknowledged the struggles of Native American communities' lack of easy access to the postal system, and said any move toward expanding vote by mail efforts should accommodate currently faulty voting systems.

“There's a lot of really good evidence about how Native American communities have really terrible access to vote by mail, and we have to make sure that we are not baking into our electoral process and a system failure already,” said Myrna Pérez, director of voting rights and elections with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“We don't want to cut off the very avenues that they have by building our voting process on top of a system that is already not serving people,” Perez added.

Lack of Broadband Access

Advocates of mail voting often cite the need for increased access to online resources as a way to facilitate voter registration and subsequent mail ballot access while maintaining social distancing during current pandemic conditions. But these experts also warn that online systems cannot replace traditional polling places due to existing digital divides.

“We could see millions of Americans who typically register in the lead up to election being shut out of the process unless we make registration options available to them -- standing online registration, making sure that registration is available to people who don't have driver's licenses, making sure people who don't have internet access being registered as well,” said Wendy Weiser, a vice president and director at the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program during a recent virtual panel alongside Perez.

Landreth echoed that warning, saying that currently the vast majority of reservations and large Native American communities do not have access to broadband, and in areas where access to internet connectivity is possible “trying to download a PDF form will be like having a dial-up modem in the early 2000s.”

Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat who is one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, is optimistic about voting access for members of Native American communities in her home state, but adds that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic also put a sharper spotlight on the need for greater broadband access in those areas.

Haaland says access to modern internet connections would not only make the voter registration process easier, but would also provide Native communities with a portal to critical necessities including public health and safety information. In April, the Congresswoman led a Congressional Native American Caucus letter asking the Federal Communications Commission to give tribes temporary authority to create broadband infrastructure on their lands during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This pandemic is highlighting a lot of things that we needed,” Haaland said in an interview with ABC News, adding, “There's a limited broadband in so many rural communities but definitely in Native communities across the country.”

According to a press release from Haaland’s office, the Government Accountability Office cites “the lack of wireless connectivity in Indian Country has left approximately 1.5 million people on tribal lands without access to fundamental services, which is lower than some third world countries.”

PHOTO: Rep. Deb Haaland at a  news conference at the U.S. Capitol Sept. 27, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Deb Haaland at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Sept. 27, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE

Existing language barriers

According to the Voting Rights Act, Americans who do not speak English well, have depressed literacy rates or are members of a single language minority group, must be provided with information about the electoral process in their respective language, in addition to English.

The Native American Rights Fund warns that a preference for mail voting without an accommodation for populations who rely on this type of in-person translation of election literature would seriously limit the voting abilities of elder tribe members in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Mississippi.

“A lot of Native America -- this is a lot of New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, parts of the Dakotas and even counties in Mississippi -- are protected under the Voting Rights Act because so many people still speak their native language and are not fluent in English, and you can't get that kind of assistance -- which is mostly oral in a vote -- by mail ballot,” Landreth explains.

Rep. Haaland, whose state is among those identified as having elder tribe members who rely on in-person translations, says most Native American voters in New Mexico are used to voting in person, and adds that she is working with party leaders to ensure these voters are aware of any changes in the voting process so they can be better prepared to participate in upcoming elections.

“Democratic Party in New Mexico and I are jointly undertaking a messaging campaign to make sure that everybody knows how to vote, fill their application for their ballots out, and send them in and vote by mail,” she told ABC News.

Early voting ahead of New Mexico’s June 2 primary election began on Tuesday, and voters can request absentee ballots through May 28, and limited options for in-person voting will be available later this month. Haaland says the various accommodations allow her constituents to vote in a manner that doesn’t put their health ahead of their voting rights.

“During this pandemic, no one should have to choose between their health and voting,” Haaland said, “This needs to be something that's fundamental -- that we put our health first for everything we do and voting is no different, so it's critical, I think, that we protect the health and safety of every single voter in this country and the obvious choice for that is mail in balloting.”

Recommendations to boost representation

Experts say that while no one-size-fits-all solution exists, engagement from Native American leaders is crucial to alleviate existing voting hurdles before they possibly worsen amid the ongoing pandemic.

“We advocate that people contact the tribes in their states first of all to say ‘what do you need’,” Landreth told ABC News.

Education campaigns, like the one Rep. Haaland describes, are just one of the ways experts and advocates say can better support Native American voters in tandem with a push for mail voting.

“The reality is that not everyone is going to be able to vote by mail,” Perez acknowledged, “In part, some of it is going to be a technological limitation because there are going to be folks who can't get their applications processed on time or folks who are unfamiliar with the system.”

Additional options put forth by experts for Native American voters who are unable or reluctant to vote by mail include social distancing adjustments like curbside voting, an increased number of ballot drop boxes, paid postage for election day postmarks and the utilization of mobile voting stations, which would stay open temporarily as polling locations.

The Native American Relief Fund also suggests state election officials consider “funding non-profit third parties to perform registration and ballot collection,” as well as collective transportation for Native Americans to and from polling sites or post offices, although current pandemic conditions would likely necessitate additional social distancing measures.

The most long-lasting suggestion involves designating one or more tribally-designated buildings to each precinct in order to ensure more localized voting access.

Landreth explains that these buildings could open at the same time as a particular state’s early voting period, and with enough resources, could serve as one-stop shops for Native American voter registration, ballot mailing, and translation services all on tribal land. Landreth, along with the Native American Relief Fund, advise that these kinds of buildings should also stay open beyond election day to serve the communities’ other administrative purposes, like Census counts and future voter registration efforts.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, currently about 5.2 million Americans at least partially identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native, and while not all Native Americans live on reservations, 345 tribal nations exist across 34 states. Nearly 78 percent of those who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native are at least 18 years old, which could translate to potentially sizable voting blocks across crucial 2020 battleground states that have larger Native populations like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, and Minnesota.

“In some of those battleground states there's going to be some narrow margins, so it's going to be absolutely critical that we do everything we can to ensure natives can cast their vote,” says Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, a nonprofit group that aims to increase the visibility of Native Americans across the country.

Echo Hawk hopes efforts to boost and maintain Native American political participation will lead to more visibility for Native American people both politically and culturally.

“There's actually a significant portion of the American population that aren't even sure we exist anymore,” Echo Hawk said in reference to findings in a public opinion study she co-lead called the Reclaiming Native Truth Project.

“Contemporary Native Americans do not exist largely in the consciousness of the American public, and what our research found is that that invisibility really fuels its own implicit bias because if someone doesn't exist for you, you can't have empathy, you're not really thinking about them on a range of issues,” she said.

Echo Hawk pointed to Native American congressional leaders’ work ensuring that tribes were included in stimulus package negotiations as an example of how increased Native American political representation would help further ensure that Native communities are “not forgotten or left behind.”

“The federal government needs to consistently be reminded that they have a federal trust responsibility to tribes,” she added, “These aren't handouts, there's a federal trust responsibility because of our treaties and what Native Americans gave up -- the land we all stand on today.”

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