Justice Department says states, nation must improve voting access for Natives

Richard Mauer
Richard Mauer

The U.S. Department of Justice said Monday that lagging voter turnout among Native Americans could be reversed by changing federal law to require states and localities to make it easier to vote in Alaska villages and on Indian reservations.

The initiative to increase turnout among Alaska Natives and American Indians was announced Monday morning in Washington, D.C., by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Later in Anchorage, one of Holder's deputies, Associate Attorney General Tony West, expanded on the proposal in a speech and news conference.

Addressing the midyear conference of the National Congress of America Indians at the Dena'ina Center, West said the Justice Department's ideas include asking tribal councils to pick locations for village and reservation precincts that would be more convenient for voters than long journeys by plane, boat or car.

"Our proposal would give American Indian and Alaska Native voters a right that most citizens take for granted," West said.

He also spoke in favor of longer hours for voting, including extending early voting to areas with Native populations. And he said more could be done to make elections accessible to Natives with limited English skills.

"Many American Indians and Alaska Natives live far from established polling places," West said. "In some tribal communities, many individuals face language barriers," he added.

Responding to the initiative, Alaska Elections Division director Gail Fenumiai said the state was already consulting with tribal councils on locations of precincts in villages. In small, remote villages where there are no established precincts, the state offers voters assistance in preparing absentee ballots, she said.

Later, at the press conference, West explained why the Justice Department filed a "statement of interest" last week in a Native language lawsuit set to be tried in federal court in Anchorage. He said the Alaska Division of Elections defendants had asserted that because the Justice Department had never tried to force state officials to translate all election materials into Native languages, it must have agreed that partial translations were good enough.

Not so, said West. The Justice Department believed the law was clear. Anything provided to voters in English had to be offered to voters who speak Native languages, he said.

West said the Justice Department planned to consult with tribes and election officials before submitting a bill on Native voting rights to Congress. He said it was too early to say whether the Justice Department thought that every Alaska village, no matter how small and remote, should have a polling place.

But West was critical of the Supreme Court decision last year which overturned a section of the U.S. Voting Rights Act under which the Justice Department monitored elections in Alaska and other states, mostly in the South. Under monitoring, which required Justice Department approval before changes in election laws and procedures could be implemented, Alaska was prevented from closing several largely Native precincts in 2008, including one that would have merged Tatitlek with Cordova.

West said voter turnout among Native Americans was 15 to 20 percent below that of other voters. He acknowledged that historical, social and economic causes contributed to low participation, but said access difficulties to polling places shouldn't be among them.

"Among all Americans, political participation goes up with income and education, so it is not surprising that political participation by Native Americans, whose communities suffer disproportionately from high poverty and struggling public schools, consistently trails that of non-Natives," West said in his address. "Not surprising, perhaps, but not acceptable either."

West said the country had a "disgraceful" history of disenfranchising Native Americans, including in Alaska. A territorial statute in 1915 said an Alaska Native could only vote if five white U.S. citizens determined the Native had abandoned "all tribal customs and relationships," West said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 257-4345.


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