All-mail-in voting has arrived in the red-rock bluffs and canyons of San Juan County, Utah, which overlaps the Navajo Nation’s reservation. In 2014, the county sent voters mail-in ballots for the general election, while closing local precincts in the shadow of Red Mesa’s ruddy flat-topped butte; in Monument Valley, the fabled location for John Ford Westerns; and in other towns and hamlets. Just one polling place remained open, in the county seat, Monticello, in the predominantly white northern portion of the county. Also gone were 20-some election judges and translators who had provided voting help and federally mandated language assistance to non-English-speaking Navajos. Just one part-time official interpreter was left to cover about 8,000 square miles—an area nearly the size of Massachusetts. As states and counties around the nation increasingly offer voters convenient ways to cast a ballot—early voting, in-person absentee voting, vote-by-mail—Native people find themselves shut out, according to an In These Times story,“The Missing Native Vote.” Since 2012, Natives have sued three times in federal court to obtain in-person absentee voting on reservations, claiming that offering this option only in distant, off-reservation county seats means they do not have voting rights that are equal to that of non-Natives. The Department of Justice has proposed legislation to remedy this problem, according to a Rural America In These Times article.
Language assistance is another hurdle for non-English-speaking Native voters. It’s required by the Voting Rights Act, but in practice may not be offered. In 2014, Alaska Natives won a court decision reaffirming their right to have the state give them election information in their own languages. As a result, Native voters in Alaska were credited with helping elect a Native lieutenant governor, protect the vast Bristol Bay region from mining and raise the state’s minimum wage.
This shows that securing voting rights lets Natives work to better their world, says OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux co-director of voting-rights group Four Directions. “If you don’t vote, you’re not at the table when all manner of decisions are made. Keeping us from the ballot box is a way of preventing us from being part of the body politic and improving our lives, our communities, and our economies.”