Commentary

Native American voters are counting on the Legislature to increase access

May 3, 2021 5:30 am
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(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

After years of voter suppression and ignoring voting accessibility issues in tribal communities, who is thinking of uplifting the voices of Native American voters? This legislative session has made the answer very clear: Speaker Jason Frierson and the Assembly Democratic Caucus.

The history of voting rights for Native Americans is fraught with voter suppression at every turn. Native Americans were not considered United States citizens until 1924 and were not guaranteed the right to vote in every state until 1962. The struggle has had lasting ramifications that are still palpable today. Natives consistently have the lowest voter turnout and lowest voter registration numbers. Why is that the case when most Native Americans are active participants in their tribal elections? It’s because Tribal Governments create accessibility for their citizens to participate in Tribal elections. It is clear that Natives are disenfranchised not by a lack of interest but by lack of access.

AB 321 not only strengthens voting rights for all Nevadans, but brings inclusivity to tribal communities. Giving Tribal Governments an extended deadline to request polling locations and ballot drop boxes (March 1 for Primary Elections and August 1 for General Elections) reinforces tribal sovereignty. Governments must be able to determine what is appropriate for their citizens. Each community is different, so flexibility is essential. What works for the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, may not work for the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe. The extension also allows already stretched thin Tribal Governments time to make these decisions.

An uncomfortable truth has come out in the conversation surrounding AB 321. Those in opposition to making it easier to vote simply do not want low income people of color to vote. Take the discourse surrounding ballot collection for example; not once were the tribal communities that benefited from this policy considered. Many of our tribal citizens live miles away from the nearest post office or ballot drop box. The outcry should be around the fact that it is so inaccessible for people to vote, not that community members are helping turn in their friend or family members’ ballots.

Empowering Tribal Governments to create their own entrances to voting is the most important part of securing voting rights. While AB 321 enhances the actual voting process, there are still huge barriers to voting for Natives. One of the largest barriers is difficulty in creating equitable voter registration programs. With many Natives still unregistered to vote, it’s clear that current Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) programs are not enough and AB 432 helps fill that gap.

AB 432 permits Indian Reservations or Colonies to submit a request to the Governor to allow tribal agencies to conduct AVR. Current AVR programs are not reaching Native voters who interact more often with Tribal agencies. These agencies are often already collecting the information needed for voter registration. The bill creates ease of access that has been hard fought for years by Native voters.

This year’s legislative session has proved tough for all sides. Legislators have had to make difficult choices on what must be the top priority for getting Nevada back on track after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is indisputable that increased voting rights for all Nevadans will be a signature win this year. It is encouraging that finally, Native Americans will not be forgotten about in the expansion of voting rights. Now that things are getting on track, hopefully, the days of swaths of disenfranchised Indigenous voters will be a relic of a bygone era.

 

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Taylor Patterson
Taylor Patterson

Taylor Patterson is a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe and the executive director of the Native Voters Alliance of Nevada (NVAN). NVAN is a member of the Let Nevadans Vote coalition.

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