At the beginning of October, the House of Representatives passed an updated version of the Heroes Act, addressing the needs developed since the House passed an earlier version of the bill. This bill is needed as our country is still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One critical section of the House-passed bill is Section 108, Accommodations for Voters Residing on Indian Lands.
A Tribal citizen residing in Indian Country faces significantly more issues to cast a ballot in next month’s election than just about any other group in the country.
Add COVID-19 to the mix, and these challenges become almost impossible. Almost.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage America, voting by mail for the upcoming election promises to be higher than at any time in the past. It is a way to give citizens security in casting their ballots. However, in Indian Country, voting by mail isn’t quite as simple.
According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are about 2.4 million eligible American Indian and Alaska Native voters living in the top 15 states with the highest populations of voting-age Natives. With mail-in voting on the rise, Native communities face myriad issues such as a lack of reliable mail access, nontraditional addresses on reservations, mail-in ballots only printed in English, distance to a post office, and bad road conditions to get to the post office. Plus, the ever present threat that once a ballot is cast, the election official will toss it out due to a missing signature or some other piece of missing information. It shouldn’t be surprising that Native Americans overwhelmingly prefer casting in-person ballots.
Let me remind you how vital the Native vote is in any election, especially this one. Case in point: In 2018, the Montana Senate race was decided by a mere 18,000 votes. Incumbent and Indian Country champion Senator Jon Tester credits an increase in Native voter turnout of 19% with putting him over the top.
Now, how does this relate to Section 108 of the updated Heroes Act? Section 108 of the bill makes it easier for Natives to cast their votes on Indian lands by:
Permits an Indian Tribe to designate buildings as ballot pickup and collection locations on tribal lands,
Requires states to collect ballots from designated locations on tribal land,
Requires states to provide absentee ballots for federal election to each person who is registered to vote and who resides on Indian lands without requiring a residential address,
Ensures that voters living on Indian lands may use the address of a designated building for ballot pickup and collection as their residential and mailing address, and
It goes into effect for this election.
The stakes of the election could not be higher for Indian Country, and having the Senate pass the House’s revamped Heroes Act would allow Indian Country’s voice to be heard louder than ever before.
Fred Starzyk is Managing Director of Starzyk & Associates, a Washington, DC lobbying firm representing tribes and tribal organizations before the U.S. Congress and the Administration. For more information on Starzyk & Associates, please visit www.starzykassociatesllc.com.