Courtesy Red Lake Political Education Committee
U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) with Beltrami County Commissioner Tim Sumner.

Looking Good: Satellite Voting Proposed for Red Lake Nation

Stephanie Woodard
7/23/14

A no-excuse absentee-voting office has been proposed for Red Lake Nation, in Minnesota. At a July 15 meeting, officials of Beltrami County, which overlaps Red Lake’s reservation and administers federal elections for four of its five precincts, encouraged the county auditor to set one up in the tribal capital in Red Lake, according to County Commissioner Tim Sumner. “The final decision is up to the auditor, but it’s great to have the commission on board for this,” said Sumner, who is the third tribal member to serve in such a post. Details must still be worked out, he said.

More access will drive registration and turnout on Red Lake, which already has high election participation, Sumner said, adding, “Native people are proud of their right to vote.” He noted that when tribal members go to the polls, the immediate effect is on local and state elections and policymaking. However, he said, Natives also have a history of deciding contests at the federal level. He named U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), who has campaigned at Red Lake, as among many officeholders who’ve benefited from Native support.

According to Tribal Legal Advisor Michelle Pacquin-Johnson, she will meet with the county to decide about location, staffing and more. “Tribal members have been election judges for years, and we hope some can be hired. We do know we’ll have a dedicated computer line that communicates with Minnesota’s voting system, so once someone has cast a ballot, this is recorded with the state.” If everything works out, the office will allow voters to late register and cast a ballot, starting 45 days ahead of federal primary and general elections.

The Minnesota legislature approved no-excuse absentee voting in 2013. However, Red Lake residents can’t readily access the service. To do so, some would travel as many as 150 miles round-trip to Bemidji, the Beltrami County seat. In contrast, many already go to the tribal capital to do business and pick up mail, said Pacquin-Johnson, a tribal member and co-chair of the Red Lake Political Education Committee, which provides voter registration, information on issues and the like. Lack of rural postal delivery means voting by mail—sometimes suggested as an alternative to in-person voting—is also difficult on Red Lake, requiring multiple trips to the post office to request, receive and return a ballot, she said.

Sumner anticipated that greater access would lead to more Native candidates running for non-tribal offices—and winning. Pacquin-Johnson agreed: “We need representatives who truly understand the community.”

The idea for the satellite office originated with a request from Red Lake’s tribal council, said Bret Healy, of Four Directions voting-rights group. A long-time veteran of bruising Native-vote battles, he facilitated the request and was surprised and pleased that the commission’s discussion quickly took a positive turn. “The belief expressed was that every eligible voter should be able to vote. You could have knocked me over with a feather.” Four Directions donors have provided a $2,000 check for the office’s first-year expenses, against a total of $8,000.

The polling place is among several new tribe-county co-operative efforts, according to Sumner. Others include identifying reservation foster homes and re-opening a state welfare office in Red Lake. “All of this is not for us, but for the generations to follow,” Sumner said.

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