Commentary: State’s tribal members need assurances on voting

A Native American Voting Rights Act would protect and promote their participation in government.

By John McCoy

For The Herald

We must do more to ensure that the indigenous community has fair access to the ballot box. The 2018 election in North Dakota gave national attention to an issue the Native population has been grappling with for decades: voting laws around the country that intentionally or unintentionally exclude Indian Country from the democratic process.

After the 2016 presidential election, North Dakota enacted one of the most restrictive voter identification laws in the country. We saw countless reports on the effect that decision had on the native population. The North Dakota law requires that identification used for voting must have street addresses printed on them and specifically bans use of a Post Office box number. The exclusion of P.O. Boxes denied thousands of natives from voting, because residential addresses are not used on reservations. Tribal IDs are recognized by the federal government; it makes no sense that these same IDs cannot be used to register to vote.

Tribes operate in a different way from many; our community is relationship-based, those that live on the reservation know all their neighbors. There is no need for a residential address when you already recognize where everyone lives. Indian communities know how the reservation works; it is the outside world that doesn’t.

North Dakota did not consult tribal leaders before changing the voter ID law, even though they knew then changes to the law would affect tribes the most. Even after the passage of the law, the North Dakota secretary of state did not work with tribal leaders on the law’s implementation; what is happening in North Dakota a clear continuation of forced assimilation that has been imposed on indigenous peoples since the arrival of settlers. Native Americans are the second largest population in North Dakota and should have an active role in legislation that affects their community. It is the responsibility of legislatures across the country to understand the needs, especially as their voting rights, of tribal members in their state.

There are 567 federally-recognized tribes in 36 states in the United States, 29 of them are here in Washington. We represent a diverse community who have been on this land before the European concept of “voting” even existed. In 1854, the Washington Territorial Assembly passed its first law, limiting voting to “white male inhabitants at least twenty-one years of age.” Our state must acknowledge that in the formation of what is known today as Washington, the government excluded the Native community from civic participation. It has been less than 100 years since Native American’s were given the right to vote by the federal government; Washington state’s constitution did not reflect full Native voting rights until 1974. Even with full enfranchisement in our state, obstacles still remain for tribal voices are heard.

As the enrolled tribal member elected to the Washington State Senate, I realize there is still much work to be done to ensure that the indigenous community can fully participate in the democratic process. To address such barriers, I am sponsoring the Native American Voting Rights Act this year in the Senate. This legislation would amend our state’s election laws by authorizing Tribal IDs as a valid form of identification for the purposes of registering to vote. To many in the Native community, driver licenses and state identification cards are expensive to purchase, especially considering rural unemployment on reservations. This change would bolster voter registration and civic participation in native communities.

The bill would also mandate that county auditors establish a ballot drop box on Indian reservations, on sites selected by the tribes. Tribal members across our state have limited access to dropbox locations; during the 2018 election the Tulalip tribes did not have a single drop box on the reservation. Yakama Nation has more than 1.4 million acres of land and a population of 11,000. There were only a handful of drop box locations on their reservation, making it difficult for tribal members to turn in ballots.

Voter participation is not a partisan issue; it is the foundation of our democratic system and must be protected by all sides. Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together to ensure that our electoral system works in the interest of all Americans. Our democracy works best when we all have the opportunity to participate. When entire communities are denied access to the ballot box; lawmakers need to take a look at systemic issues that need to be addressed.

The Legislature has a chance to rectify historical wrongs with the passage of the Native American Voting Rights Act. In doing so, we will send a loud and simple message to the Native community: we recognize that civic participation as we know it today began with American Indians, and as sovereign citizens of the United States you have the right to have your voice heard at every level of government.

Now, more than ever, we must reassure the American people that their government works for them: regardless of their appearance, ethnic origins or history, or any other discriminatory artifices.

I look forward to working with my colleagues this session to defend these basic and essential principles of fairness and accessibility in elections and government.

State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, represents the 38th Legislative District.

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