Justice Department considers making request that would add polling sites to tribal lands

The Justice Department is considering making a recommendation to Congress that would require any state or local election administrator whose territory includes part of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government.

Associate Attorney General Tony West announced the effort Monday morning at the National Congress of American Indians conference in Anchorage. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also released a video Monday unveiling the Obama administration’s plans to consult with tribal governments on a legislative proposal that would ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives have “a meaningful opportunity to claim their right to vote.”

“Standing by as Native voices, for whatever reason, are shut out of the democratic process is not an option,” West said. “This proposal would give American Indian and Alaska Natives a polling place in their community, somewhere to cast their ballots and ensure their voices are heard — something unremarkable to most other citizens.”

Under the current system, the location of polling places is left in the hands of state and local governments, which decide how many polling places to have and where to locate them, Justice Department officials said. The plan the department is considering would ensure that Native American voters have a polling place in their communities.

Voter participation rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives lag behind turnout rates among non-Native voters, according to the Justice Department. The gap is larger in Alaska, where turnout among Alaska Natives often falls 15 to 20 or more percentage points below the non-Native turnout rate. West said the causes are complex, but there are two factors that the administration can address.

“The first is that many American Indians and Alaska Natives live far from established polling places,” West said. “The second is that, in some tribal communities, many citizens face language barriers. These two factors, alone and in combination, create special challenges.”

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder last summer, the Justice Department cannot use what was known as “preclearance” in the Voting Rights Act to prohibit certain jurisdictions, including Alaska, from changing polling places in a manner that could discriminate against Native American voters, West said.

After the court’s decision, West said, Alaska has eliminated “in-person voting” for more than a dozen more Native villages, giving the villagers no other choice but“permanent absentee voting.” The Alaska Natives in those villages have to request an absentee ballot before each election.

“For many Native voters, that option is far less accessible because they receive little or no assistance in navigating the bureaucratic process for obtaining and casting an absentee ballot,” West said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, welcomed the Justice Department’s announcements but said they should not deter Congress from passing legislation he introduced in January to update the Voting Rights Act.

“Whether it involves inaccessible polling places, reduced voting hours, or language barriers, it is important that these issues are addressed so that the fundamental right to vote is protected,” Leahy said.

The Obama administration has taken several steps in an effort to improve public safety and living conditions in Native American communities. In 2010, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which expanded the abilities of tribal courts to increase prison sentences in criminal cases. Obama also signed the 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which included a provision to allow the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit certain violent crimes against Native women if their tribal court systems meet certain requirements.

Last week, Holder traveled to Bismarck, N.D., where he addressed a tribal conference at the United Tribes Technical College and met with a group of a dozen Native American teenage boys, mostly from the Standing Rock Reservation. On Friday, Obama, in a rare visit by sitting U.S. president to an Indian reservation, will travel to Standing Rock with first lady Michelle Obama and meet with a group of young Native Americans there.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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