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Native populations could be decisive this election — as long as they can vote

Totaling some 6.8 million people, American Indians and Native Alaskans could play a key role in the upcoming election, especially in Western swing states like Arizona and Nevada. But there are some obstacles in Native communities that make their residents less likely to vote. Stephanie Sy talks to attorney Jacqueline De Leon of the Native American Rights Fund about efforts to change that.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With some 6.8 million American Indian and Native Alaskans in the U.S., the Native vote could play a key role in the upcoming election, especially in some key swing states in the West, like Nevada and Arizona.

    But, as Stephanie Sy reports, there are unique obstacles that make the population less likely to vote, and some are trying to change that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, even though Native Americans represent one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, voting rights advocates worry they are being forgotten. And the pandemic has created even greater barriers to voting access.

    To discuss this, I'm joined by Jacqueline De Leon, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. Her group held field sessions across Indian country about voting. The findings were compiled in a paper called "Obstacles at Every Turn."

    Jacqueline joins me from Denver, Colorado.

    Jacqueline, thank you so much for being with us.

    I want to start with this.

    There's been a big push for mail-in voting in many states, but, in Indian country, for a lot of Native Americans, simply mailing in a ballot is not even an option.

  • Jacqueline De Leon:

    That's right.

    Even receiving the ballot is really difficult. And that's because, on many Native American reservations, Native Americans just don't have residential home mail delivery or pickup.

    And so, when it's time to cast your ballot, they're not receiving them safely in their mailbox. Instead, they have to travel to really distant post offices that are open for really limited hours, use the P.O. box that shared between 10 to 15 people, and then pick up and then make that whole trek again to drop off their ballot.

    Right now, Native Americans understandably are being very conservative with their communities. They're shutting down their communities to outsiders in a lot of ways. And so the registration efforts are difficult.

    Additionally, Native Americans face barriers when registering, because they don't have traditional addresses. And so it's just difficult for them to fill out the form.

    But there are solutions, and there should be in-person registration available in locations that are near where people live.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And so in-person voting is the preferable method, I understand in a lot of places where Native Americans live, especially in rural areas, and yet there are other obstacles to that, transportation being one of them.

  • Jacqueline De Leon:

    That's right.

    So, what we found at the field hearings is that the in-person voting options on Native reservations are often just unreasonably far away. They're often located in the nearby border town. But that border town, in fact, is not nearby. It can be 40 miles away. It can be significant distances on a dirt road in November, that a person would have to travel, when there's very limited transportation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But a lot of the other impediments that you talk about in this comprehensive paper "Obstacles at Every Turn" are systemic issues that need to be addressed over the long term as well.

  • Jacqueline De Leon:

    That's right.

    Unfortunately, what we see are compounding injustices. So, it's not necessarily fair that Native Americans lack addresses on their homes, right? It's not either fair that the transportation options are limited due to poverty. There's no public transportation. People's vehicles are in poor working shape.

    And over 90 percent of reservations lack access to broadband. And so we do see Third World conditions on Native American reservations. These are systemic issues that are compounded when the costs of voting are incredibly high, which is what we're seeing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Access to voting and access to getting people counted in the national census, which is currently under way, are similar issues. Are you concerned about another undercount of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in this census?

  • Jacqueline De Leon:

    Absolutely.

    Unfortunately, what we're seeing is a drastic undercount of Indian country, which is going to mean billions of dollars of lost funding. And the reason is, is that the enumerators that were expected to be on reservations were not able to go.

    There's not been a receptive audience to the idea of expanding deadlines or creating solutions that would allow Native Americans to be fairly counted.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    We should also mention that Native American populations, including here in Arizona, where they make up 6 percent of the voting age population, could, in fact, be a powerful voting bloc in some key swing states.

    What is your organization and other voting advocacy groups doing from now until the November election to make sure that Native Americans are included in this election?

  • Jacqueline De Leon:

    Absolutely.

    So, Native Americans make populations that could decide the election in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, to name a few.

    And so Native Americans have swung elections in those states before. And so we are coordinating with tribes, trying to get them to maintain their in-person polling options, pushing back against counties that would have only mail-in voting options, and trying to make a national plea and a state plea to please maintain in-person, on-reservation polling locations.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jacqueline De Leon, such an important issue, with the Native American Rights Fund, thank you so much.

  • Jacqueline De Leon:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So glad we were able to look at that.

    Thank you, Stephanie.

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