Olympia – Tribal members across Indian Country turn out to vote at a rate up to 14 percent less than any other group, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
That statistic was one of a many raised in testimony, Jan. 23, as the Washington State Senate held a hearing on Senate Bill 5079, an act relating to the Native American voting rights act of Washington.
Colville Business Council member Margie Hutchinson testified in support of the bill alongside Yakama Nation’s Mathew Tomaskin and Washington Attorney General’s Office July Simpson.
Senator John McCoy, D-38th, sponsored the bill and introduced it to the committee.
Previous to the bill’s hearing, Jacqueline De Leon, Native American Rights Fund, presented during a work session concerning the election obstacles for the 29 tribes across the state.
In 2015, the Native American Rights Fund started a coalition to identify causes behind what De Leon called the tribal members’ “overwhelming lack of participation in the political process,” and over the last several years the coalition has conducted field studies on those challenges.
“A common narrative is that people are prevented [due to] lack of interest,” said De Leon. “What we found is that in fact there are first order barriers throughout Indian Country that prevent people from voting.”
De Leon defined first order barriers as overt barriers that prevent voting, such as lack of access to a ballot drop box, as opposed to second order barriers, such as a difficult registration process.
De Leon listed those first order barriers affecting Indian Country as isolating conditions, technological isolation, high poverty rates, lack of resources and funding and non-traditional mailing address among other general factors.
According to De Leon, across the country, most tribal members average a 40-mile trip to vote – “Given the poverty rates and road conditions, that’s a huge factor,” said De Leon.
SB-5079 would work to alleviate some of those concerns by requiring county auditors to establish a drop box on reservations when requested by tribes, by permitting the use of nontraditional addresses on voter registration and by allowing use of tribal identification for electronic voter registration.
The bill would also allow the state attorney general the ability to sue counties “for failure to establish a tribally-requested ballot drop box or collect ballots from a tribally-designated pickup and collection point.”
In past elections, Ferry County has placed drop boxes at the San Poil Community Health Center in Keller and the Lake Roosevelt Community Health Center in Inchelium, though in August, the Spokesman-Review reported ballots deposited during the 2018 primary election the county auditor failed to collect ballots the drop boxes in Inchelium and Keller (along with ballots in drop boxes in Curlew and Danville) until a week after election day.
Okanogan County has placed a drop box at the Coulee Dam City Hall.