A picture and a tweet from National Congress of American Indians, "NCAIs 2012 Native Vote effort has become a movement, and we're just getting started."

Elections 2012: National Congress of American Indians Challenges ID Laws, Promotes Native Voters

Mark Trahant
10/23/12

The National Congress of American Indians set an ambitious goal for this election cycle: The largest Native turnout in history. That means registering some one million potential voters – and then making sure those folks actually go to the polls.

Much of the focus, so far, has been on the registration effort by the Native Vote. It uses a variety of tools from community events to online registration. On Monday NCAI outlined a problem and a potential solution.

“Indian country is focused on turning out the largest Native vote in history this year – and this report helps us focus our protection and education efforts. Voter ID laws and photo ID laws are a major concern and we are working to make sure Native voters have the information they need to make their voice heard,” NCAI President Jefferson Keel said in a conference call from the organization’s 69th Annual Convention being held in Sacramento, California.

The new report, “Voter ID laws & the Native Vote: States of Concern,” says that state voter ID requirements create three problems. First, it strips American Indians of their rights when states refuse to accept tribal IDs. Second, it costs money, travel and time for American Indians to get a state ID. And, these laws risk disenfranchising voters by rejecting provisional ballots. Three states – Alaska, Florida and Minnesota – either have rules or proposed measures that do not allow the use of tribal IDs for voting.

“The failure to include tribal identification in equivalent fashion to include federal or state-issued ID, especially when nongovernment IDs are included (like student ID and utility bills), undermines tribal sovereignty and is a significant barrier for many Native voters,” the NCAI report said. “While there are compelling reasons to avoid overreaching voter ID laws, the status of tribal nations as co-equal sovereigns (as recognized by the Constitution and treaties) requires governmental parity and access to participation for all Native citizens ... voter ID laws should be reviewed to ensure they adequately acknowledge the role of tribal governments and recognize IDs issued by federally-recognized tribal governments as valid identification.”

Then, even with ID, there is the problem of geography, the lack of street addresses on many reservations and villages. A proposed Minnesota law requires that any ID show a current access or show a utility bill with that address. P.O. boxes are not acceptable. (This sure rings true at my home. I have to “explain” my address before any packages are delivered.)

NCAI’s report says tribes should educate voters about the provisional ballot so that votes won’t be lost. In many states, even without ID, citizens may vote. But then a specific process kicks in that requires further action. Too often those votes are not counted.

NCAI’s Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata said that protecting the vote is critical. She said an NCAI partner has a hotline where people can call and get potential advice about how to press for their rights. The hotline’s number is (866) OUR-VOTE. This hotline could be particularly helpful to someone who shows up to vote and is turned away. Lawyers who are part of that project have a form on the website for voters to “share their story” and report problems.

In most parts of the country, voter registration is now over. So now the focus is on Get Out The Vote whether through going to the poll or by using an early voting station or a mail-in ballot.

Pata said she was calling potential voters and was struck by one she said answered “no” when she asked if he was planning to vote. “May I ask why?” she asked. “Because I did early voting.” Early voting is expected to be significant in this election cycle, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all votes cast.

Two states where the Native vote can make a difference in the presidential election are Wisconsin and Arizona. A Rock the Vote event is planned for Green Bay on Tuesday supported by tribes, Rock the Vote, and Native Vote. Pata said another state to watch native voters is North Carolina.

In addition NCAI said Native voters could determine the fate of the U.S. Senate by voting and choosing candidates in U.S. Senate races in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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