Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

The coronavirus has already disproportionately affected Native American communities in cases and deaths throughout the pandemic. Now, with days until the general election, the pandemic  has further restricted their access to election sites and vote-by-mail.

Native Americans have often participated in elections less than other voting blocs due to systematic disenfranchisement, including requiring literacy tests and a refusal to place polling places near tribal lands or reservations. For rural native communities, access to polling places is often restricted because they don’t own cars or have a way to use public transportation, and polling places are few and far between in their communities. Those who do make the drive to cast their vote face an arduous trip: One 71-year-old Chippewa Cree man made a 74-mile round trip to collect his ballot and drop it off in Montana. While many polling places on reservations have closed this year due to coronavirus regulations, post offices still provide a voting outlet for Native Americans. Advocates argue that voting by mail puts people who live on rural reservations at a disadvantage because many residents do not have home mail delivery, so they must travel long distances to access their P.O. box.  

According to Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and chief executive of IllumiNative and a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, about 70% of Native Americans surveyed voted in the last election, but younger voters still question if their vote matters. “And there’s a really high degree of distrust in the U.S. government based on their treatment of Native peoples,” Echo Hawk said.

Despite potential setbacks, Native American volunteers around the country are working to ensure native voices are heard in this year’s election. 30-year-old activist Allie Young led a trail ride to help voters in the Navajo Nation cast their ballots last Friday. The Rural Utah Project has worked during the last two years to assign physical addresses for Navajo voter registrations. Advocates in Montana are volunteering to return ballots for voters. However, due to coronavirus restrictions, these organizations cannot provide as many services as they normally would, like shuttling to polling places or offering additional personal assistance. Glacier County in Montana added two ballot drop boxes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on Friday, just five days before the election. The Red Lake Nation reported registering 5,500 new voters in recent weeks.

MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

Getting to the polls can be hard in Navajo Nation. This woman is leading voters on horseback. – The Washington Post – 11/2/2020
There are only a few available polling stations for Navajo voters, many of whom have limited access to transportation. Frustrated by the barriers that discourage voting among Indigenous people, Young, 30, hatched a plan. She started “Ride to the Polls” in early October, hoping to empower Native American youth to vote in the 2020 election while connecting with their cultural heritage.

Voter Suppression Is a Constant in Navajo Nation – The American Prospect – 11/1/2020
But this fall, the weather isn’t the only thing that might discourage tribal members from voting in the general election. State officials continue to resist, as they have for decades, improving voter accommodations for the Navajo. […] But this fall, the weather isn’t the only thing that might discourage tribal members from voting in the general election. State officials continue to resist, as they have for decades, improving voter accommodations for the Navajo.

Organizers focus on reaching Indigenous voters in northern Minnesota – Minnesota Reformer – 10/29/2020
The Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake Reservations collaborated with the environmental group MN 350 and Four Directions — a voting advocacy organization — to register hundreds of new Indigenous voters this fall. […] Even if the registrations are not all new voters, they indicate person-to-person contact between organizers and voters, which will make it more likely people on the reservations will mail in a ballot or turn out Tuesday. That in turn could have implications for local and state elections.

Why vote-by-mail could depress Native American turnout on North Dakota reservations – The GroundTruth Project – 10/21/2020
But in recent months, the pandemic has pushed a once-obscure idea of universal vote-by-mail into the mainstream, especially in North Dakota as it emerged as one of the states with the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in the country. North Dakota is among the states that have pivoted quickly towards a mail-in system for the upcoming election, scaling back in-person voting options this November by close to 50%. For the Bird Bear sisters who really want to cast their ballots in person, that means an hour -long drive to the nearest polling place. This year, their county is offering just two, both more than forty miles from their homes.

They Survived Intimate Partner Violence—Now They Can’t Safely Vote – The Fuller Project – 10/28/2020
Cox is among the disproportionate number of Native people assigned female at birth who are subject to domestic violence in the U.S. Combined with the barriers to voting Native Americans already encounter, survivors like Cox face unique obstacles to casting ballots, says Danielle Root, Voting Rights Associate Director at the Center for American Progress, who has researched the issues that prevent domestic violence survivors from voting. These unique obstacles for Native survivors, she adds, haven’t been extensively studied and “require more analysis.”

For the Navajo Nation, ‘Everything Takes Time,’ Including Voting – The New York Times – 10/15/2020
Post offices are few and far between on the reservation, and mail can take a week and a half to reach the county seat. In this year’s election, that has more profound implications than ever before.

INFLUENCER PERSPECTIVE

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