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Lawmakers Address the Challenge of Native Voting Practices

Published On: Jun 09 2014 02:57:19 PM AKDT

The U.S. Attorney General presented plans Monday to increase access to polling places for American Indians and Alaskan Natives during elections.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced a plan of action that included requiring local and state authorities whose territory included tribal lands to place at least one polling place in an area recommended by tribal leaders. Holder went on to explain the difficulties faced by Natives trying to participate in elections, which have spurred him and the Justice Department to begin changes to current voting practices.

“All too often, tribal communities must contend with inaccessible polling places, reduced voting hours – and even requirements for mail-in, English-only ballots in places with low literacy rates and limited English proficiency," Holder said during his announcement. "“Let me be clear: these conditions are not only unacceptable – they’re outrageous.  As a nation, we cannot – and we will not – simply stand by as the voices of Native Americans are shut out of the democratic process."

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tony West also spoke out Monday at the National Congress of American Indians 2014 Midyear Conference in Anchorage, acknowledging the country's history in neglecting what he called the "First Americans" and promising action to prevent further abuses against American Indians and Alaska Natives in polling places.

"Even after the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 brought First Americans within the protections of the Constitution's voting amendments, states with large tribal populations continued to use a variety of discriminatory devices to keep Native voters off the rolls," West said in his speech. "Our proposal would give American Indian and Alaska Native voters a right that most other citizens take for granted: a polling place in their community where they can cast a ballot and receive voter assistance to make sure their vote will be counted." 

An analysis of the 2008 election by Demos revealed American Indians and Alaska Natives had the lowest voter turnout ratio in comparison to other racial groups in the nation, a result that is consistent with a pattern previously observed by U.S. Census officials and other demographic study groups. Since 1990, roughly 20 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have failed to register to vote, and of those, the ratio of registered voters who turned out at polling stations was an average of five to 14 percentage points below other ethnic groups. 

According to Holder, the Justice Department's next move is to begin discussions with the leaders of sovereign tribes in the U.S. If the tribes decide to pursue Holder's suggested course of action, legislation will be formally proposed to Congress in order to enact it.

“For decades upon decades, American Indians and Alaska Natives have faced a distinctive history of discrimination that has adversely affected their right to vote," Holder said. “At every level of our nation’s Department of Justice, my colleagues and I are firmly committed to protecting the voting rights of every eligible American."

"By bringing the voting process to our fellow citizens who live on reservations or in Native villages," West said. "We can help to ensure that the election process is more sensitive to the distinctive needs of tribal voters."

West will continue speaking at the National Congress of American Indians Mid-Year Conference through Monday, and on Wednesday will deliver remarks during the Task Force Hearing on American Indian and Alaska Native Children’s Exposure to Violence.