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Bill aims to address Native American voter disenfranchisement

Tribes make case for more polling locations, ballots in own language
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, seen here in 2018 during his re-election campaign, introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act in the U.S. House of Representatives to tackle the issue of Native voter disenfranchisement.

FARMINGTON – A bill to protect Native American voting rights ahead of the 2020 presidential election is under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by members of the New Mexico congressional delegation.

The Native American Voting Rights Act, currently in the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Elections, aims to increase voting access and tackle voter disenfranchisement in Native communities and communities of color. The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and in the Senate by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

“As a nation, we have still not fulfilled commitments to tribes to work with them on a government-to-government basis to protect Native voting rights,” Luján said in remarks on Tuesday. “This is a great injustice, and one that allows the longstanding disenfranchisement of Native voters to continue.”

Many Native communities face increased challenges and barriers to voting and accessing their polling locations. Often ballots are printed in English only, polling locations are moved away from tribal lands and many states require a physical address on IDs while many Native voters have homes without a physical address.

The discussion in the House of Representatives comes a week after South Dakota’s Legislature rejected a proposal to allow tribal IDs to be used for voter registration. The Native American Voting Rights Act would attempt to address such issues by allowing tribal governments to collaborate with states to protect Native communities’ access to the ballot box, Luján said.

The legislation would require states to accept tribal IDs for voting registration, require precincts to place polling locations on tribal lands if requested and require the precincts to have tribal agreement if changing a polling location.

The bill has gained support within New Mexico from Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Isleta Pueblo tribal member Jacqueline De León and New Mexico’s Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. León and Doreen McPaul of the Navajo Nation both attended Tuesday’s hearing in Washington, D.C., in support of the legislation.

The hearing and Luján’s remarks come the same week Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, gave the annual State of Indian Nations address. In her speech, Sharp highlighted growing concerns over tribal sovereignty, including voter suppression, and the need to reinvigorate an “enduring government-to-government relationship between tribal nations and the U.S. government.”

“They don’t recognize the indisputable fact that we are genuine governments with the right, and more importantly, the ability, to govern our own lands and communities,” she said.

With growing concerns over Native voter disenfranchisement for the 2020 election, Luján said the bill is “a national priority for Indian country.”


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