Imagine if, in the 2016 elections, you had to drive 104 miles (167 km) to your nearest polling station , like National Congress of American Indians research found those people living in the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada do, or 163 miles (262 km), like residents of the Goshute Reservation in Utah do. Or imagine if you had to take a plane flight to the nearest polling place because you cannot get to it by road, which was the case for several Native communities in 2008, when the state of Alaska attempted a “district realignment” to eliminate polling places in their villages. That’s just half the trip. In those circumstances, can you really be said to be enjoying full voting rights?
Consider, too, that many reservations do not have access to early voting, so they will have just one day on which to make that astonishingly long journey. You can imagine the line at that polling place: either it will be very long because everyone is forced to go on that same day, or very short because not many people could afford an entire day off work to vote – that is if they even have a car and a driver’s license.
In an attempt to remedy these problems, the Department of Justice recently proposed the Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act. It would provide polling places at locations of the tribes’ choosing, likely remedying the 100 mile drive for tens of thousands of voters. The DOJ proposal is not perfect because, as currently written, it contains some conditions that will not work for some communities such as the requirement to provide all poll workers and election officials and also ensure that they are adequately trained. Some tribes, especially smaller ones of 200-300 people or less, may not have the capacity or expertise to do that.
If the goal is truly equal access, then American Indian and Alaska Native communities should just be able to request a polling place that is not disproportionately far and request early voting and get both those things – no strings attached. They too should be able to stop by polling stations on their way home from work, like so many other Americans can.
Some might ask why Native communities can’t just vote absentee by mail. It is not that easy. Although circumstances can vary, illiteracy rates are extremely high in some Native areas. In the Bethel Census Area in Alaska, for example, illiteracy is 17 times the national average. This is not because people are drop-outs, but because they speak and read Yup’ik, their Native language, and English-speaking high schools were not widely available in rural Alaska until the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition, some reservations do not deliver mail to your house, so you have to travel a significant distance to check a rural post office box that you are probably required to share with several other families.
In Alaska, rural mail delivery is just not as fast and sometimes it can take several weeks to get your ballot, in which time you may have missed the deadline to return it (if you could read and understand it). Some people also just don’t trust voting by mail, and who can blame them? It’s hard to trust completely an absentee voting system when sometimes very serious mistakes happen, like the time in the 2004 general election when 2,500 absentee ballots were held up at a post office because the Alaska Division of Elections had deposited them at the post office with inadequate postage. It was later discovered that some voters did not receive them in time as a result.
Right now, would-be voters in indigenous communities who want to address these problems have to rely on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority. These cases are long, complicated and expensive – and that’s if you can find a voting rights attorney willing and able to help you (for free). They also require the would-be voters to expose themselves to public scrutiny, sit through a 7 hour federal deposition, testify in federal court, wait months or years and hope that the judge agrees you should have early voting or a polling place within 50 miles (80 km) of where you live. Given the long history of denying American Indian and Alaska Native communities their rights, it is time that the most basic of democratic rights - the right to vote - is protected and upheld. Every vote must and should matter, regardless of who they are or where in America they live.