Vote by Mail in Native American Communities
In any move to a vote-by-mail system because of COVID-19, we must provide accommodations for tribal communities to protect their ability to vote.
Below is an explanation of the problems with vote-by-mail in many Native American communities. We recommend that tribes and states work together to enact the policy changes below. If you have questions or need assistance implementing policy in your community, please contact the Native American Rights Fund at firstname.lastname@example.org
Native Americans Do Not Have Mail Delivery at their Homes
Throughout the country, many homes on reservations do not have addresses or have “non-traditional addresses” that do not use a street name. The postal service does not deliver to these addresses, so they cannot receive ballots at their homes. Additionally, some precincts prohibit the delivery of election materials to non-traditional addresses.
Distant Rural Post Offices, Slow Mail Routes, Too Few PO Boxes
Native Americans who lack home mail delivery commonly use PO Boxes to conduct business. Rural post offices can be remarkably far—some Navajo Nation members travel 140 miles roundtrip to access postal services. Some Fort Peck members in Montana travel 34 miles each way. Rural post offices also run limited hours. PO Boxes cost money and sometimes there are not enough Boxes to service a community, so friends and families share them. Some precincts do not allow PO Boxes or shared Boxes for voter registration. Finally, rural mail is often delayed due to complicated mail routing.
Poverty Makes All of These Obstacles Worse
Native peoples have a 26.6 percent poverty rate, nearly double the national rate. On reservations and in Alaska Native villages, it is even higher, at 38.3 percent. Mailing a ballot on a reservation requires gas money, time, and access to a vehicle. These costs are simply too high for many impoverished Native Americans.
A Housing Crisis: Homelessness, Over-crowding, Moving Homes
There is a severe housing crisis on reservations. It is not uncommon to have 15 people sharing a home. People move from couch to couch because they have no home of their own. Native Americans also suffer from high rates of homelessness. Precarious housing makes both voter registration and the delivery of mailed ballots difficult. Some state laws prohibit ballots to be mailed to a home with more than one family.
In-Person Registration on Paper Registration Forms
Over 90% of reservations lack broadband access so many Native voters cannot register online. Many Native voters do not have driver’s licenses and DMVs are too far away—in North Dakota some Standing Rock members have to travel 131.6 miles roundtrip to get to the nearest DMV. Without a driver’s license Native voter’s signatures are not on file with the state and cannot be easily matched with their mail in ballot if a signature match is required. In-person registration is required to provide the signature to match.
Some Elder Native American Voters Are Not Fluent or Literate in English
A mailed ballot is useless if it cannot be completed without translation. Elders in Alaska, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Utah are covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires language assistance. Some Native languages are unwritten and many places do not provide Native language translations, which means in-person assistance is needed
ADVOCATE FOR THESE CHANGES:
Tribally Designated Buildings
Washington, which is an all-mail-state, currently uses a system of tribally designated buildings to ensure Native American access to voting. States should implement a system where tribes designate one or more buildings per precinct. Members use the building as an address for voter registration and a physical location to pick up and drop off ballots. The building contains a no-postage-required ballot drop box that is open for the same time as in-person voting locations would be. Ballot collection occurs at no cost to the tribe. The Secretary of State must provide accurate precinct maps so tribes can designate buildings at least 60 days before an election. A tribal member living in that precinct may use the tribal building address for voting registration and a separate mailing address to receive a ballot. A voter outside of that precinct may use the designated building as a mailing address and indicate their home precinct through a description of their address, as specified in section 9428.4(a)(2) of title 11, Code of Federal Regulations. These buildings should also be used to provide in-person voter registration.
Translations and In-Person, On-Reservation Language Access
Translate all voting materials, including voter registration, voting information, ballots, and instructions if Native language is written. Provide early registration and voting with language assistance for all voting materials at on-reservation polling sites for an extended period to minimize traffic; practice social distancing; and provide personal protection equipment such as face masks, gloves, and wipes. Creative solutions such as in-person translation of absentee ballots during meal drop-off should be permitted and encouraged. Jurisdictions under court-ordered Section 203 remedies must comply with those remedies or secure court approval for changes needed to provide effective language assistance for mail-in voting.
Fund transportation for Native communities to tribally designated buildings, polling and registration locations, post offices, and ballot drop boxes. Consider funding non-profit third parties to perform registration and ballot collection.
Safe In-person and Curbside Voting
Maintain in-person polling sites and make modifications to ensure safety: allow curbside voting; implement generous early voting opportunities to reduce crowds; designate hours for high risk voters such as elders; provide Personal Protective Equipment to all poll workers; regularly clean polling sites; mandate distance between voters.
Mobile Voting Stations and Registration
Require all voters have access to ballots within 20 miles of their home. Use mobile and temporary voting stations as needed. Offer language assistance at mobile voting locations as appropriate. Provide advance notice of schedule and locations, including in Native languages and dialects. Allow same-day, in-person registration at mobile voting stations.
Ballot Drop Boxes
Increase the number of ballot drop boxes so no voter must travel more than 20 miles to access a no-postage-required ballot drop box. Keep drop boxes open as long as in-person voting locations would be under state law. Collect ballots from the drop boxes at no cost to the tribe.
Accept Election Day Postmarks, Paid Postage
Because rural mail delivery is delayed by complicated mail routes, ballots marked by Election Day should be considered timely and counted. No election should be deemed complete until all timely ballots from Native communities are counted. Postage should be pre-paid—even the cost of stamps is prohibitively expensive for impoverished Native Americans and it is hard to get a stamp on reservations.
Ballot Collection and Distribution
Do not penalize rural, poor, and elder voters. Do not restrict the ability to pick up and drop off ballots for others. Do not limit the number of ballots sent to PO Boxes. Do not regulate the number of families that can receive a ballot at one home.
Provide notice and ample opportunity for a voter to cure a missing signature or lack of a signature match. Work with tribes to contact tribal members and provide notice.
Sponsor robust education campaign to alert hard-to-reach Native communities updating them on the new rules, how to fill out ballots, and instructions on how to correct an incorrectly filled out ballot. Local radio should be used to reach remote areas.
Native American Rights Fund
Boulder, CO 80302