In September 2023, Native voting advocates from across the country who participate in the Native American Voting Rights Coalition came together in Washington, D.C., to discuss their ongoing fight for equitable voting access for Native communities. The meeting, which was organized by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), provided the group with the opportunity to talk about the challenges that they were facing and strategize on the most effective way to overcome those obstacles. Attendees took comfort in sharing their frustrations, but more importantly, they gained confidence through strategizing for success.
In communities across Indian Country, Native voters have been fighting for years to receive voting services that are equitable to their non-Native neighbors. Too often reservations do not have registration services and polling places. When they do, they often have shorter hours, fewer days, and less options than the voter service offices in nearby off-reservation communities. In the past, tribal nations were forced to accept what was offered or take up a resource-intensive fight to correct the unfair treatment. Over the years, tribal nations, Native organizations, and individuals have contacted NARF to request help to protect their voting rights. It was against this background that the Native American Voting Rights Coalition was created.
In January 2015, NARF proposed an ambitious new project: gathering voting rights advocates, lawyers, civil rights experts, and tribal advocates into one room to discuss current problems with voting in Indian Country and begin to develop solutions to these problems. NARF founded this Native American Voting Rights Coalition to facilitate collaboration among its members and to coordinate efforts at overcoming the many barriers Native Americans face in registering to vote, casting their ballot, and having an equal voice in elections.
In 2016, the NAVRC conducted a multi-state survey of barriers that Native Americans voters face. To build on the survey, in 2017-2018, the coalition held field hearings across the country. This work culminated in a 175-page report on the obstacles that Native voters face at every turn in the political process. The report, Obstacles at Every Turn: Barriers to Political Participation Faced by Native American Voters, illustrated how prevalent and systemic the inequitable treatment of Native voters was.
The report also provided a roadmap for the coalition. It helped identify some of the most pervasive problems and patterns of voter suppression that tribal nations were encountering. Today, much of the coalition’s efforts are focused on addressing those systemic problems strategically, across Indian Country. Meetings such as the one held in D.C. are invaluable opportunities for folks on the front lines to share information about what they see happening and how they are overcoming resistance and discrimination in their regions.
Unfortunately, voter suppression continues to evolve. It is essential that those fighting to defend voting rights have the tools and knowledge to effectively combat disenfranchisement. The Native American Rights Fund, tribal nations, and our allies are committed to making sure that Native voters and tribal nations are heard. We have power, and it is important to utilize that power to protect our people. Native voters deserve to be heard and it is essential that our American democratic systems include the Native voice.
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