• The Voter Formation Project

Barriers to Access: Native Voters

Welcome back to the VFP blog. Today, we’re excited to share with you the second installment in our series on barriers to voting access (if you missed the first, which took a look at the barriers to voting faced by disabled voters, be sure to check it out here). We’ll be walking you through the barriers to the ballot box faced by Native communities, who, ICYMI, were not legally eligible to vote in every state until 1962.


(Credit: Redux Pictures)


We’re going to look at the barriers that Native voters face at every step of the process: from registering to vote, to casting a ballot, to having that ballot counted. Much of the information here comes from a much more comprehensive report by the National Native American Rights Fund, which we *highly* recommend giving a read. Let’s get started:


Barriers to Voter Registration

Native voters often face considerable hurdles to the ballot box before they even attempt to exercise their right to vote: registering to vote presents such a challenge to millions of Native Americans that millions of Native citizens remain unregistered.


Lack of Traditional Addresses

Native voters are frequently barred from registering to vote by the (deceivingly simple) requirement that they provide a physical address for their residence. Many Native Americans have nontraditional, rural addresses; general delivery addresses that are shared among many members of a tribal community; or post office box numbers, which, again, are often shared by several families. When the nearest post office is located in another county or state (yes, state), the location of a person’s post office box won’t always align with the location of their residence. This is enough to block voter registration, the delivery of a mail ballot, and access to voter ID.


Voter ID Requirements

Tribal ID cards are not always accepted for voter registration purposes, forcing Native Americans who want to register to vote to obtain state issued IDs. This is difficult both because of the lack of traditional addresses and distance: Native Americans usually have to travel off reservation, sometimes hundreds of miles, to obtain state IDs. Tribal members describe hours-long travel times to access a DLS or DMV office, at which point they are required to pay steep fees (in Washington State, the cost to obtain a driver's license is a whopping $89).


Lack of Opportunity

In rural areas, election officials and voter outreach groups tend to rely on broadband and cell phones to reach voters. Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission estimates broadband penetration in tribal communities at less than ten percent, while an astounding 40% of the Navajo Nation lacks cell phone coverage.


Further, according to the Census Bureau, 13.4% of all American Indian and Alaska Native households lacked access to a vehicle, making it impossible to travel the great distances required to register and vote. Chippewa voters have to travel as far as 100 miles round trip to register to vote, while residents of the Crow Creek Reservation must drive 180 miles round trip to register to vote.


Arbitrary limits on the number of voter registration applications that can be obtained or returned are another tactic used to suppress Native votes. A Montana community organizer testified that Natives are “hassled” when they return what election officials believe are too many completed voter registration cards. In 2014, Native organizers were told that they could bring in no more than 70 completed voter registration cards at one time. In 2016, election officials lowered that number to 40.


Language Barriers

Over a quarter of Native people speak a language other than English at home. Two-thirds of all speakers of Native American or Alaskan Native languages reside on a reservation or tribal village, leaving them reliant on translation services. Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires counties to provide language assistance for voting activities in 35 subdivisions in nine states but, in practice, local election officials often fail to provide translation services to Native voters, either as a result of ignorance or discrimination.




Barriers to Casting a Ballot

Even when Native Americans are able to register to vote, field surveys show that they face another set of barriers to actually casting a ballot. These include:


Lack of Funding

We know election administration is underfunded in the best of times. So it comes as no surprise that Native communities have polling locations with inadequate facilities and equipment, resulting in long wait times that prevent voters from casting ballots. In one extreme case in South Dakota, Native voters described being forced to vote in a dirt-floor chicken coop with no bathroom facilities.


Lack of Pre-Election Outreach

There are extremely low levels of activity by third-party groups to conduct voter registration outreach (think: work like holding voter registration drives, door-to-door canvassing, and phone banking) in Native communities, with just 29% of Arizona and 33% of New Mexico respondents indicating awareness of any third party registration drives. For many rural communities, such outreach is an effective way to register and mobilize voters, and to raise awareness about candidates - outreach that is sorely needed in Native communities.

Lack of outreach extends to failures to notify Native voters about changes in voting precincts, leading to disenfranchisement when voters show up at the wrong location. Early voting procedures are also not shared with voters, including information like the fact that voters are still able to cast a ballot if they are in line when the polls close.


Access to Polling Places

Native voters consistently have to travel greater distances to their polling places than non-Native voters living in the same counties. A 2017 survey of Native Americans by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition found that 32% of respondents in South Dakota said that the distance needed to travel to the polls affected their decision to cast a ballot. Limited numbers of polling sites and drop boxes for absentee ballots force some on reservations to drive 150 miles to vote. Counties justify the absence of polling places based on numbers of registered voters in Native communities, initiating a vicious cycle in which registration numbers are depressed because of a lack of in-person voting.


When polling places do exist, they’re not readily accessible. In Arizona in the 2016 general election, “off-reservation early-voting locations were open for multiple days, ranging from being open and operating on October 12th-November 3rd…In contrast…early-voting locations on the White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache reservations only had early voting in-person for one day, and on that one day, [it was] only open for four hours.”


Far too often, Native voters are not offered any early voting locations on tribal lands. In the poorest areas of Nevada, where several reservations are located, no early voting or satellite voting locations were established.


Barriers to VBM

Vote by mail is often thought of as a positive force for rural Americans, allowing those who would not otherwise have access to polling places to make their voices heard in elections. For Native people, the story is not so simple.


We’ve established that tribal communities have limited access to post offices, coupled with unreliable mail delivery services. Reduced hours for post offices on reservations are common, with many only open one or two days a week. Studies show disparities in mail delivery times, too: mail sent from post offices off-reservation arrived at election offices within one to three days, while around half sent from the reservation took three to 10 days.


Another barrier to VBM comes in the form of distrust. Like many historically oppressed groups, Native voters have high levels of distrust in the U.S. government, which drives a preference for in-person voting. While about 89% of Native voters trusted that their in-person ballot would be counted, only 24% had complete trust that their mail ballot would be counted, and 24% had “no trust” in voting by mail.


To make matters worse, laws in many states give county clerks the discretion to designate precincts in rural and tribal areas as “all VBM” if they do not meet an arbitrary threshold of registered voters. All VBM elections depress voter registration and voter turnout, creating a vicious cycle in which it becomes even more difficult to meet the threshold for a mandatory in-person voting location.



Barriers to Ballots Being Counted

Assuming a Native American can register and then vote, they face additional barriers when it comes to having that vote counted, including:


Ballot Collection Bans

As we’ve mentioned, mail delivery is a massive hurdle for Native Americans. It’s common for many members of a community to share the burden of mail delivery and retrieval. However, if a shared batch of mail contains early ballots, then a neighbor doing a mail run is considered “ballot harvesting” and becomes illegal in states like Arizona.


Lack of Ballot Curing

A lack of reliable postal service also affects Native voters’ ability to correct ballot errors when given the opportunity to do so. Where a non-native voter might be notified of a ballot error and given the ability to correct it in a matter of days, for a Native voter, this process can take weeks, effectively eliminating that voter’s opportunity to vote in a given election.



We know: we’ve given you a lot to think about. Though the situation for Native voters remains appalling, there are signs of progress. In 2018, a record number of Native Americans ran for office, and Native women were elected to Congress for the first time ever. And in 2020, a sovereign the Cherokee Nation sent a delegate to Congress for the first time.


And, if you’d like to take action to support the Native voting rights, we encourage you to support the Native American Voting Rights Act here.


Thanks for reading, y’all! Talk soon.


“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin