A California tribe is the first to open a U.S. voter registration agency established on tribal lands, a move civil rights advocates say is decades in the making as other Native American tribes continue to fight for more electoral access and challenge states' polling district boundary laws.Consisting of about 500 tribal members on a 160-acre reservation in El Dorado County, the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians established its Health & Wellness Center on Tuesday as a voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act.
"Throughout this nation's history, voting rights and equitable access to registration has been a key ethical and political issue that as a self-governing people, we understand as an essential right for every citizen," said Shingle Springs Band Tribal Chairwoman Regina Cuellar in a statement.
Currently, with more than one-third of qualified Native Americans not registered to vote, Cuellar said having an electoral site at a health care center will help the tribe reach its goal of "voting for all."
"This designation means we are now partners. We want to make sure that every voter who is eligible to vote has an opportunity to vote," said California Secretary of State Shirley Weber in a statement. "Like the Department of Motor Vehicles and California healthcare providers under NVRA, this will provide a convenient opportunity for visitors to the Shingle Springs Health & Wellness Center to register to vote. We have as our goal 100 percent registration of eligible voters in California, that includes the full enfranchisement of Indigenous peoples throughout the state."
The National Voter Registration Act, also known as the Motor Voter Act, was enacted by Congress in 1993 as a way to make it easier for residents to register to vote, particularly at Department of Motor Vehicles locations. Under the act, other locations may be designated as a voter-registration agency.
However, the law wasn't that simple, or helpful, for Indigenous tribes, according to a March 2022 federal Interagency Steering Group on Native American voting rights.
Formed as part of President Joe Biden's March 2021 executive order directing an "all-of-government" effort to promote access to voting, the group relied on a 2020 report by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition — a yearslong product of the Native American Rights Fund — for a closer look at the barriers voters faced since the law's passage.
In 2017 and 2018, the coalition held nine public hearings, with 120 witnesses testifying from dozens of tribes, to better understand "how Native Americans are systemically and culturally kept from fully exercising their franchise."
The 176-page "Obstacles at Every Turn" report found that Indigenous voters faced obstacles from a lack of traditional mailing addresses to registration identification requirements. And, with an increased national focus shifting toward online registration, tribes were well behind the curve with about 90% of communities lacking sufficient broadband internet access, the report said.
"While cost savings is touted as a reason for states to shift to all online or predominately online models of voter registration, increasing focus on online voter registration comes at the expense of Native Americans who lack access to it," the report said.
Indigenous voters, the report found, sometimes traveled as far as 140 miles to the nearest election offices and 100 miles round trip to the closest Department of Motor Vehicles location.
"Native American's registration rates are among the lowest in the country," Jacqueline De León, a Native American Rights Fund attorney, said in a statement on Tuesday. "This is because Native Americans face logistical barriers that would surprise most Americans. Most Native American homes don't have addresses and many Native American homes do not receive residential mail."
The group's findings eventually led to the 2021 introduction of a bill — the Frank Harrison, Elizabeth Peratrovich and Miguel Trujillo Native American Voting Rights Act of 2021 — that would have ensured equal protections for access to the electoral process for Indigenous residents living on tribal lands.
A companion bill on the measure passed in the House, but failed to make it off the Senate floor. However, Native American rights groups as well as Biden, have called for its passage.
Introduced by Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, the bill would have improved access to voter registration, polling places and drop boxes as well as mandated that polling places accept tribal or federal forms of identification, among other things.
"Our democracy is at its strongest when every American can participate and make their voice heard. But in too many communities across America, voter suppression efforts are making it harder for Americans to vote, especially for Native Americans who continue to experience geographic, linguistic and legal barriers to voting," Lujan said in a statement in introducing the bill. "Congress has a moral imperative to protect the sacred right to vote and reduce barriers to the ballot box for voters living on tribal lands."
Civil rights advocates say a legacy of Native American voter suppression continues as states pass legislation that allegedly target Indigenous voters with new redistricting policies, as highlighted in recent court rulings, or federal agencies are failing altogether to implement stronger registration access.
The American Civil Liberties Union in March, on the 30th anniversary of the National Voting Registration Act, in an analysis of its own found that a few federal agencies had made headway in following Biden's executive order that strengthened the law. Most agencies, the ACLU found, either made minimal progress on their initial commitments to expand voter access or left important opportunities open.
"This must change; we must make the promise of democracy real for every single American," the ACLU said in introducing the report.
Other tribes have had mixed results in their fight for greater access to the ballot.
In 2020, a Montana federal judge struck down the state's Ballot Interference Prevention Act following a challenge by a coalition of tribes, including the Blackfeet Nation, and voting rights advocates who said the 2018 law unconstitutionally restricted their efforts to deliver and collect ballots.
But a U.S. Supreme Court 6 -3 ruling in 2021 upheld two voting laws in Arizona, finding they didn't discriminate against Native Americans, Hispanics and African American voters under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In that decision, the justices found that a state voting regulation criminalizing some third-party ballot collection and another rejecting out-of-precinct ballots weren't illegal when considering the "totality of circumstances" around the measures, as required by Section 2.
Elsewhere, the Spirit Lake Nation and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota are awaiting the outcome of a federal district en banc hearing where the tribes challenged the state's 2021 legislative map, which they allege weakens the voting strength of reservation residents by packing Native voters into one state House district and by taking others out of a majority in another district.
And in Arizona, a group of civil rights nonprofits and two Native American tribes have contested in federal court two Republican-sponsored bills that they allege disqualify many would-be voters when the law went into effect on Jan. 1 in violation of the National Voter Registration Act and the U.S. Constitution.