Vote-by-mail systems could offer challenges for Native Americans

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For Native Americans living on reservations, implementing vote-by-mail policies could create barriers to voting.

As the coronavirus has ravaged the country, killing 100,000 Americans and leaving 40 million without jobs, states are beginning to consider voting by mail as a safer alternative to in-person voting.

But having a P.O. box still creates barriers. Many Native Americans share their P.O. boxes with other people, and the boxes are located in post offices which could be several miles from their homes. Checking their mail therefore often requires time, money, and transportation, making it difficult to receive an absentee ballot. Some states, like North Dakota, do not consider P.O. boxes to be valid addresses, meaning that Native Americans who only have a P.O.

In 2018, the Navajo Nation sued the state of Arizona and several counties for making it difficult for reservation members to cast early ballots by not providing language assistance and by refusing to give residents time after the election to fix early ballots where the envelope was not signed or a signature did not match. Ferguson-Bohnee, who represented the Navajo Nation in this case, said that over 100 ballots were not counted because of these restrictions.

The two parties reached a settlement in 2018, with the county agreeing to instate tribal accessible polling places and language assistance for Navajo speakers. But Ferguson-Bohnee noted that litigation comes at a high cost, and court processes are often lengthy. Washington state could be a model for the rest of the country to improve access to the physical ballot box for Native Americans while being a primarily vote-by-mail state. Last year, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed the Native American Voting Rights Act, which allows for Native Americans to use nontraditional addresses or a building designated by the tribe as its address for the residential address portion of a voter registration form.

 

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