In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Dakota encouraged voters to use absentee ballots in the June 3 presidential primary election. Although the state received almost 89,000 absentee ballots in the primaries — five times the number of absentee ballots cast in the June 2016 primaries — and voting increased across the state, voter turnout on the Pine Ridge Reservation remained low, at approximately 10%. As author Jean Schroedel explains in her new book, Voting in Indian Country: The View from the Trenches, barriers to Indigenous voting are nothing new. Absentee ballots may only make them worse.
Though the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Indigenous people born within the United States, voting can still be difficult for tribal communities. During South Dakota’s 2020 primary election, any voter who used an absentee ballot was required to mail in a ballot application accompanied by a photocopy of an acceptable photo ID card, or else have a public officer notarize the application. For people on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where businesses are often few and far between, producing a photocopy, or even finding a notary public, can pose significant barriers to applying for absentee ballots.
In many cases, this is deliberate. Strategies designed to suppress the Indigenous vote, range from having too few polling stations on reservations to gerrymandering to dilute the impact of tribal votes to failing to adhere to the minority language requirement of the Voting Rights Act. Indigenous voters sometimes have to travel up to 200 miles to even reach a voter registration site or polling location.
Indigenous voters also face blatant voter discrimination from local governments; many have had to engage in costly and burdensome lawsuits and court battles simply to gain access to the ballot box. In 2014 in South Dakota, the Jackson County Commission refused to place a satellite polling station in Wanblee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in time for the 2014 midterms. The county eventually installed the station, but only after four enrolled members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe sued.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, a surge of laws has made it even more difficult to vote in Indian Country. In 2016, for example, Arizona passed a so-called “ballot harvesting” law that made it a felony for third parties to mail in or drop off another person’s ballot. But many rural Indigenous voters rely on other people, including workers from voter assistance organizations, to collect and turn in their absentee ballots.
Voting in Indian Country chronicles the history of Indigenous voter suppression through ethnographic data, oral histories and case studies, weaving together a comprehensive record of the centuries-long battle for voting rights. Recently, High Country News talked to Schroedel about her new book, the unique challenges tribes face at the ballot box, and why voting rights abuses are still prevalent in Indian Country.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
High Country News: You write a lot about the complexities involved in voting by mail in Indian Country. With many states considering a vote-by-mail system this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, how do you see this impacting Native communities?
Jean Schroedel: Many Native American reservations have what’s called non-standard mail service, meaning you don’t get mail at home. You may have to go to either a post office or what’s called a postal provider office. The latter is very common on reservations, and it’s not a full-service post office. It’s not postal employees. You will find these postal provider offices are at gas stations or mini-marts; it’s a little add-on to whatever the normal business is.
Well, that’s a big challenge. If you can’t get mail at home, that means having to find transportation to pick up your mail. You might have to pay for a post office box, but there may not be enough. I’ve seen some places where the cost for a post office box is as high as about $140 a year. For someone who may be experiencing economic hardships, that’s a big burden.
For residents of the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation, there are a total of 26 locations where people theoretically can receive mail. This consists of 11 post offices and 15 postal provider offices where non-U.S. Postal Service contractors provide limited mail service. For comparison, West Virginia, which has a land mass slightly less than the Navajo Nation, has 725 post offices and postal provider sites.
HCN: Why is political trust important for voting by mail to work in tribal communities?
JC: If you have experienced racism in the white parts of your state or county, you might be very, very hesitant about voting by mail. There’s a tremendous amount of discretion when an individual votes by mail. In South Dakota, your ballot goes to an election office, and the county auditor, who is elected, sees your name, and knows how you voted because they are required to verify that your signature on the ballot matches the one they have on file. Are you going to send in your vote that you’re voting against that person? If you don’t trust that election official, if you think that person might be racist, if you don’t think your votes are going to count, why are you going to bother to vote?
HCN: In your book, you mentioned a “second wave” of voting rights abuses for Indigenous voters. What is that second wave?
“They don’t forbid (voting). They don’t deny it. They just make it harder for some populations.”
JS: The best way to explain it is to do a comparison with the first wave. First-wave voting rights abuses are when a state has a law that says “Indians can’t vote” or “Black people cannot vote.” Second-wave voting rights abuses dilute, suppress and abridge the right to vote. These are laws that make it harder to vote, such as having to obtain approved identification when (election) officials refuse to accept tribal IDs as valid identification, or having to travel a long distance to polling locations because those near you were closed. They don’t forbid (voting). They don’t deny it. They just make it harder for some populations.
HCN: Given all these challenges, why is it important for Indigenous communities to keep fighting for the vote?
JS: At most, Native people are 2% of the population, so time and time again I have people say to me, “Why bother? Why bother working with this group? They are not important.” Well, everyone should be important!
When you don’t have a seat at the table and people don’t have to pay attention to you, whatever issue and needs you have can easily be ignored. And when you add in the kind of geographic isolation of reservations, there is a tendency to completely ignore their needs, even if they are issues that are supposed to be handled via treaty rights.
(Voting) is important in the big elections, but also the small elections that people will feel in their everyday lives, such as who is elected to county government. In San Juan County, which is on the Utah side of the Navajo Reservation, they just finally gained a majority of Indigenous people on the county commission. This is the county that includes Bears Ears (National Monument). Now, two out of the three people on the commission are opposed to Trump’s actions in regard to (shrinking) Bear’s Ears.
If you don’t exercise the opportunity to have a voice, you won’t have a seat at the table that makes the decisions concerning you and your people. These things are incredibly important.
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