New WA law helps Native voters this election. Is it enough?

Washington lawmakers passed the Native American Voting Rights Act last year, but they couldn't have expected the pandemic and wildfires to come.

Vehicles stop at a drive-thru U.S. Census booth organized by Montana Native Vote on the Crow Indian Reservation in Lodge Grass, Montana, Aug. 26, 2020. Geographic and cultural challenges to creating access on Native lands to voting and participating in the census have always existed, but the pandemic amplified the need for better outreach and access. (Matthew Brown/AP)

During a typical year, poor internet access and long driving distances make registering to vote and dropping off ballots a challenge for residents of the Colville Reservation. 

But this year has been anything but typical.

Leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are worried the challenges of the coronavirus and devastating wildfires may present too many hurdles for the people who live on this sprawling 2.1 million acre reservation in northeastern Washington.

“It seems like it’s been one thing after another,” said tribal Chairman Rodney Cawston. “These emergencies we’ve had to deal with couldn’t have come at a worse time.” 

Cawston says the twin crises of 2020 have also made it harder to conduct adequate voter outreach to make sure people register and have the information they need to vote. Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Washington, the Colville Tribes closed their borders to most outsiders in hopes of halting its spread. Then, more recently, fires ravaged their reservation lands and burned down dozens of homes.

All this has happened amid the U.S. Census, which is particularly important to ensure that Native communities are well represented. Cawston said the Colville Tribes have continued doing whatever outreach they can, but these extra burdens have cut back on time that’s critical in getting voters the information they need. 

Rural tribes throughout the country have long struggled with access to voting, often fighting outright voter suppression. Many Native people weren’t legally able to vote until they were granted citizenship in 1924, but even after that, many states made it nearly impossible for them to participate. Recent court cases, like those in Alaska and Arizona, reveal how some voting structures are still exclusive. 

In Washington, state lawmakers attempted to improve voting access by passing the Native American Voting Rights Act last year. The November election will be Washington’s first big test of this new law, which resolves discriminatory restrictions in voter registration and improves access to ballot drop boxes on reservations. But supporters of the act could not have expected that this presidential election would come amid a pandemic and wildfires. 

“I fear that we’ll be undercounted or underrepresented,” Cawston said. “When you look at your neighborhood being threatened or your aunt or son or somebody’s home being threatened, you’re not thinking about voting or the census. You just want to make sure your family is safe.” 

State Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said it was a 2018 court case in North Dakota that first spurred efforts behind the Native American Voting Rights Act. That lawsuit challenged a North Dakota law that required residents have a street address in order to register to vote. This posed a problem for Native communities living on reservations, as many did not have a traditional address. Instead, many received their mail through P.O. boxes, which the law didn’t allow for registration. 

Former state Sen. John McCoy, a Tulalip Tribes member who retired from the Legislature earlier this year, wanted to ensure that wouldn’t happen here. He worked with Hunt and others in crafting Washington’s act to address this registration problem for Native voters, while also lifting other barriers. 

“It was really doing what we can, as much as we can, to make sure that the Indigenous community has full and fair access to the ballot box,” Hunt said. 

The act allows Native people to register via “nontraditional” addresses — like P.O. boxes — and allows tribes to request that ballot boxes be set up on a reservation so that residents won’t have to travel as far to turn in their ballot. 

people standing in front of a bus
During the 2018 elections, Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, traveled to 28 Native tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Of the 29 recognized tribes in Washington, 10 have a drop box on reservation land. Eleven have one within 5 miles of the reservation boundary, and the remaining have no box within 5 miles. Those boxes that have been installed are frequently placed in a high-traffic area, like near a tribal administration building, to make for easier  access. 

Hunt added that while no tribes that have requested a drop box have been denied one, not all have asked for one, either. He and other advocates of the legislation say that should be the next step: making sure tribes are informed about their options and eventually getting a drop box on every reservation. 

The Colville Tribes have successfully installed four drop boxes on their reservation lands. Cawston said it’s a small step that will make a difference.

“It’s really important for our people to have every opportunity that they can to cast their ballot. It’s their right to be able to do this,” he said. “It is small steps … but if that’s a positive increase, we need to do everything we can.” 

The Tulalip Tribes of Washington also installed a drop box in recent years. Theirs was installed in 2018, when McCoy first considered creating the act and wanted to secure a drop box for his own tribe. The tribe plans to install two more drop boxes soon. 

Ryan Miller, the Tulalip Tribes’ director of government affairs and treaty rights, said they have held annual ballot parties for years. Before having a drop box on reservation, ballots would have to be driven out to off-reservation drop boxes. Now, they can hold these parties in the same place where ballots will be submitted. 

Miller said many members of the Tulalip Tribes, because they're in an urban area, may have easier access than those part of rural tribes. Even so, it’s another step towards equal access for all Native people in Washington. 

“The fact that there might be tribes out there that don’t have the option to do that on their reservation because there is no ballot drop box, I think, does a disservice to our state as a whole,” Miller said. “It really matters, and we can see how in [the coronavirus pandemic] that can make a big difference.” 

The new Washington voting law, in theory, also allows tribal identification cards to work alongside other forms of identification, like a driver’s license, when registering to vote online. But Secretary of State Kim Wyman says this part of the act hasn’t worked out just yet. For that to work online, it would require that tribes give the state the ID information of their members, including voter signatures. No tribe has yet agreed to do that, so this feature of the act has yet to apply. 

“I can understand it … you’re going into a sovereign nation and asking them to provide information they’re not used to handing over to the state of Washington,” Wyman said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to do that next year, but it’s not going to happen between now and the November general.”  

Miller said that while Tulalip members haven’t been able to use their IDs to register yet, that will be an improvement in line with the digital world we live in. Members who have a tribal ID but don’t have a driver’s license currently have to submit a paper form with their signature to register to vote.

“The reality is that we live in an electronic world now,” Miller said. “People don’t fill out a lot of paper versions of anything anymore.” 

Of course, the coronavirus has changed all kinds of these processes and events for all communities. The Tulalip Tribes are planning to host a drive-thru version of their typical ballot party as a result. 

Cawston says that while drop boxes and other measures in the act are helpful, they’re only small pieces in a complicated puzzle for tribes like the Colville. Other factors that can impact voting, like difficulty accessing the internet on the reservation, still need to be addressed. It’ll be a long road before their membership can have completely equitable access to voting. 

“I hope that the ballot boxes and these things have helped, but we’re not at a typical time,” he said. “I can only hope for the best at this point.” 

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