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Native American voting reforms in 2020 spotlight

Election officials across the country continue to prep for the coming elections of 2020, and voting rights advocates are keeping an eye on issues related to registration, identification and access.

Lawmakers are also involved in bills that seek to expand strengthen voting rights.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act (included in H.R. 4) in early December 2019 on a near party-line vote.

It would reestablish federal oversight of state election law and solidify protections from racial discrimination based on the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The bill is now in the Senate (S. 561), where its future with the Republican majority is uncertain.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, is the original sponsor of the Native American Voting Rights Act.

Meanwhile, another voting rights bill is moving through the House that deals specifically with Native Americans. It is a separate bill that was not included in H.R. 4.

The Native American Voting Rights Act (H.R. 1694) was reintroduced in the House in March 2019 by Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, and in the Senate (S. 739) by Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM.

The bill is currently in the process of committee reviews.

Udall, who had originally introduced the bill in the last Congress, is the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The bill aims to expand Native American voter registration and education, establish accessible polling and voter registration sites, clarify language requirements, authorize tribal ID cards for voting purposes and require that certain decisions affecting access to voting be handled (or precleared) by tribes. (Preclearance is typically a process approved by the U.S. Department of Justice).

The bill would create a first of its kind Native American voting rights task force and establish a grant program for get-out-the-vote efforts and increase election infrastructure.

“Unfortunately we’ve continued to see barriers erected to stop Americans from exercising their right to vote. And too often those barriers target Native American voters and other Americans of color, including recent measures that forced strict and burdensome voter ID laws on tribal communities in North Dakota,” Luján said in a statement.

North Dakota was in the spotlight during the 2018 midterm elections. Its state legislature implemented a voter-ID requirement that served as a barrier to voting for thousands of Native Americans who live on reservations and use P.O. boxes rather than residential street addresses.

Despite many obstacles, the Native American vote continues to play a significant role in national, state and local elections.

Native Americans have been elected to state and federal governments at a higher rate in recent years. In Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota, Native Americans make up 10% or more of the voting population.

And yet, as many as 1 million eligible Native American voters are unregistered.

“For too long, Native Americans have been blocked from exercising their constitutional right to vote,” Udall said in a statement. “With every election cycle, state and local jurisdictions come up with new ways to deny Native Americans equal access to the ballot box.”

The legislation is so far co-sponsored by 15 senators and 94 House members. Supporters are hoping for passage of both bills sometime this year.

“We are really hopeful. There’s a lot of support within the House. It could move in this Congress,” Lauren French said of the Native American Voting Rights Act.

French is the communications director for Rep. Luján.

“It would be really helpful if our Republican colleagues would see the importance of making sure all Americans who have the right to vote go to the ballot box,” she said. “We want to make it as bipartisan as possible, but it’s not an issue that Republicans in the House are rushing to embrace, which is unfortunate.”

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at