Policy institute researcher discusses findings
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — Native Americans made up 1.7 percent of the United States population according to the most recent U.S. census in 2010. But this group reportedly can still sway elections with around five million eligible voters.
“They have the ability to influence close races across the country but according to research from the think tank Demos, the most consistent five to 14 percentage point turnout gaps between Native people and other American citizens,” Center for American Progress Research Associate Connor Maxwell said in a ‘Mvskoke Radio’ interview with Gary Fife.
CAP self-identifies as a non-partisan policy institute and advocacy organization.
Maxwell said his article on improving Native American voter participation released this summer, was a combination of work by his organization and others like the public policy organization Demos and the National Congress of American Indians.
The piece lists five ways to increase Native voter participation which are: expand voter registration opportunities, remove language barriers, eliminate strict voter ID laws, expand the use of satellite polling stations, and reform mandatory vote-by-mail policies.
“So this isn’t just bad for American democracy, it’s also bad for Native communities,” he said. “If they don’t have the opportunity to make their voices heard, then they don’t have the opportunity to choose who is representing them in public office.”
Maxwell said some previous obstacles that have been overcome still cause voter apathy among Natives.
“It hasn’t exactly been fair to them and you know, Native people were only granted full citizenship in 1924 and that’s less than 100 years ago,” he said.
He said the current five areas in need of improvement represent some intentional efforts to disenfranchise voters.
“There are lawmakers that stick provisions in these bills with the idea that this will prevent lower income people, young people, people of color, Native people, from accessing the ballot box,” he said.
Voter registration opportunities
Maxwell’s first suggestion to increase these opportunities is offering preregistration for 16 and 17-year-olds. He said they could sign a document of intent and then go straight to the polls during the next election after turning 18.
“Preregistration is a proven method of increasing turnout among young people,” he said.
According to a 2016 Duke University study, preregistration can cause an average participation increase of 2 to 13 percent.
In an online article by the National Conference of State Legislatures, some potential challenges for implementing preregistration are: cost, with Colorado spending over $570,000; identification, since some minors do not have driver’s licenses; and confidentiality of minors’ information on public lists.
The March 2018 NCSL article lists 22 states, plus D.C. that offer some form of preregistration.
He said same-day registration at the polls is another effective method along with voter registration that is automatic while filling out forms at official institutions such as Social Security offices.
“Because so often, voters decide at the last minute that they want to get involved, and they might have missed their chance to register,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires certain language minority speakers receive assistance at the polls, but the law is not fully enforced in many areas.
“It’s a huge problem in Alaska. It’s a big problem in certain counties in Arizona,” he said. “The Yupik, the people actually have to sue the state of Alaska in federal court in order to get assistance in just translating ballots.”
He said the problem disproportionately affects older Native first language speakers, and they may have trouble reading and writing in English or understanding the wording of a ballot initiative.
“In America, where there is no official language, people should not be denied their most fundamental right,” Maxwell said.
Voter ID laws
Maxwell said there has been a trend of implementing strict voter ID laws in a stated effort to prevent fraud.
“ ‘If we don’t have any way to confirm that you are who you are, you might go vote in every precinct across Oklahoma,’ ” he said.
He said the problem is proven to be rare and these laws inhibit historically disenfranchised groups, using a recent issue in North Dakota as an example.
“Anyone who wants to vote presents a photo ID that has a valid residential street address, and this was a really devious provision to add into it,” he said. “Because of a lot of folks, especially the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa don’t have central street addresses on their reservation.”
A September 2016 ‘Washington Post’- ABC News poll found that 46 percent of registered voters believe fraud happens often, with 69 percent of then-candidate Donald Trump supporters believing it compared to 28 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters.
Studies by several outlets, with most recent findings between 2010 and 2014, show low levels of voter fraud.
These were done by entities such as Carnegie-Night News21 program investigative reporting project, Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.
Maxwell said his research found that a large percentage of Native people live in remote areas far from county seats where often the only polling stations are located.
“They have to travel hundreds of miles round-trip just to cast their ballots,” he said.
He said these areas are also commonly economically depressed and advocated for easier access.
“So I like the idea of satellite polling stations, of putting polling stations on or near reservations; so that if a Native person wants to get involved, wants to vote, they can just travel a short distance to cast their ballot,” Maxwell said.
All-absentee voting policies, also known as vote-by-mail, have been touted as a way to increase voter registration and decrease government expenditure for elections.
“What I’ll say about mail-in voting, is that it’s an important option for American citizens,” Maxwell said. “In case you don’t have the time to travel to a polling station, you should be able to cast a mail ballot. But it becomes problematic when it becomes mandatory when there is no flexibility involved.”
He said some people may prefer to vote in-person or might live far from a way to mail their ballots.
Maxwell said he is not Native but addressed some issues related to voter apathy he believes are specifically hindering turnout in tribal elections.
“Given the choice of spending a couple of hours standing in line or traveling to go vote versus spending time with their family or working an extra hour, frequently they’ll choose the latter,” he said.
He said initiatives to increase voter participation such as registration drives like the one held by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Office during the MCN Festival in June are essential.
“I mean, when people who feel strongly that voting is important, they need to do more than actually show up on election day; if you feel really strongly that folks in their community need to be making their voices heard,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said clear and assertive initiatives by political groups are also a way to spur turnout.
“I think the other part of this is, politicians and political organizations need to do the hard work of getting into the communities and explaining to them how their vote will influence their life,” he said. “Politician A versus politician B have the power to truly and fundamentally change how that person is living.”
Maxwell said some citizens might consider running for office in a direct effort to affect change and that this has already gained momentum.
“And unprecedented numbers of people that have a great shot at winning, whether that’s congressional seats, statewide races, state legislatures or just even a local school board; when people get involved, it shifts the whole debate and suddenly Native issues are being talked about for the first time in decades,” he said.
He said citizens must believe their vote matters.
“It really does at the end of the day,” he said. “If people turn out at high rates, elected officials are forced to listen to them.”
With the medical marijuana state question and the school funding issue as possible factors, the Oklahoma State Election Board reported the 2018 primary saw increased turnout over the 2014 general election and the 2016 presidential primary.