Voting Obstacles for Native Americans


with Matthew Campbell of Native American Rights Fund


Oct 16, 2018

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, 22 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live on residential reservations. Despite the benefits of tribal affiliation and community attachment, this racial group faces many barriers affecting voter participation rates.

Matthew Campbell, Staff Attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, discusses his organization’s efforts in removing barriers to Native American voter registration and voting to foster a more informed and involved Native electorate.

Hosted by: Ellee Pai Hong Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Pai Hong: According to the US Census Bureau, 5.2 million people identify as American Indian and Alaskan Native. But more than one third of eligible adult voters in this population is not registered to vote. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Ellee Pai Hong. One million eligible Native Americans are not listed on voter registrations. With me to discuss efforts to encourage civic participation is Matthew Campbell staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. Matthew, thank you so much for being here.

Campbell: Thank you for having me.

Pai Hong: You know, I hear "one million votes" - that´s a huge voting bloc whose influence isn´t being utilized. What are the reasons behind that?

Campbell: Ellee, there are many barriers to voting that Native Americans face that would be shocking to most Americans. Native Americans face physical barriers, such as distance to polling locations, but they also face other barriers, as well, such as access to transportation, or the history of discrimination that they faced in the United States affects their willingness to participate in the system, as well.

Pai Hong: Yeah, let´s talk about -- You´re touching on a lot of facets here. Let´s talk about some of those other barriers. You said distance is one factor. Sometimes these polling places are hundreds of miles away. And another thing I think most Americans don´t think about is, you need to have a physical permanent address, and many American Indians don´t have that.

Campbell: Yes, what we found in field hearings that we´ve conducted is that many Native Americans lack traditional residential addresses. They many times utilize their PO boxes to conduct all their affairs, or they just simply do not have a street address where they live. So getting mail or getting other things that are required for the polling locations is just simply not available to Native Americans on many reservations.

Pai Hong: And providing a photo ID can also be a challenge.

Campbell: That´s right. In order to get a photo ID, you often have to pay for it, or you have to travel great distances to the local DMV to get a photo ID. And given the lack of access to transportation, the great distances, and the cost, many Native Americans cannot overcome those barriers.

Pai Hong: You know, you also touched on the historical aspect of things. Native Americans were granted full citizenship in 1924, along with the right to vote federally, but it took almost four decades for states to catch up. I´m sure that history has to have an effect on current civic participation.

Campbell: Yeah, the history that Native Americans have faced and have lived for over 200 years definitely has an impact in their communities. They have a general distrust of the system that they´ve been placed within, and because of the history of broken promises that Native Americans have faced, this general lack of trust in the system does hamper participation.

Pai Hong: And don´t those voter registrations still happen today?

Campbell: Voter registration does happen in almost every state except for one today, and Native American communities are trying to pick up the mantle and get out the vote -- get out the native vote. But again, because of the many barriers that Native Americans face, it´s still an uphill battle.

Pai Hong: Now, recently, in North Dakota, the Native American Rights Fund was involved with a lawsuit related to voting rights.

Campbell: That´s right. In North Dakota, they passed the most restrictive voter ID law in the nation in 2013. And we filed a lawsuit to have those barriers set aside.

Pai Hong: Now, talking about voting rights and civic participation within this community, you know, tribes are a sovereign state. They operate as their own entity. Does that functioning affect the way they participate in government?

Campbell: Tribes of sovereign nations do have their own traditional forms of government, and many tribes utilize a system similar to the United States, where they have elections. Another government tribal governments have -- traditional forms of government that are nominated in different ways. But it does impact elections and citizen voter participation in the tribal elections, but not always in the federal and state elections.

Pai Hong: And in terms of federal and state elections, you guys are making progress. You really want representation to be reflective of the Native American population.

Campbell: That´s right. We want to remove the barriers to the ballot, and we want to support our native candidates that are running for office. There are several running this year.

Pai Hong: Mm-hmm. And, hopefully, you´ll see some progress, and I know voter engagement is huge on the list of to-dos for your organization, as well.

Campbell: That´s right.

Pai Hong: All right, well, Matthew, thank you so much for being here. Appreciate your time today.

Campbell: Thank you, Ellee.

Pai Hong: And thank you for joining us, as well. My guest today has been Matthew Campbell. He is attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Ellee Pai Hong.

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