Indian reservation post offices are on the list of 3,600-plus branches the U.S. Postal Service wants to eliminate in order to help fix the agency’s multi-billion-dollar annual deficits. One office on the list is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Nation in Arizona, two more branches are on the Coeur D’Alene’s Idaho reservation, and three are in Standing Rock Sioux Tribe communities in South Dakota; these and numerous additional reservation branches nationwide may close their doors.
And that may close the door on the voting rights of tribal members who depend on them, says O.J. Semans, Sicangu Lakota, head of voting-rights group Four Directions. “Getting rid of post offices in Indian country would have a dramatic effect on access to voting,” he says. “In Nevada, for instance, about half of the 27 tribes rely heavily on the post office to register and to vote. Here in South Dakota, the state has Native American Indians to rely on the mail for voting. The 2010 national election was a good example of this, in that the state pushed for reservation voters to use mail-in absentee ballots—which required them to go to the post office three times: to request, receive and return the ballot.”
Four Directions’ legal director Greg Lembrich, senior associate at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, recalls that at the National Congress of American Indians’ Native Vote Core Working Group meeting in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, several tribal representatives spoke of the success certain tribes and community groups had achieved with vote-by-mail efforts. “They’ve had a tremendous impact on raising voter turnout on several reservations,” says Lembrich. He calls the post office “crucial” to registration and voting by Native Americans, who may not have home delivery, so need that local branch in place in order to use the mail.
The USPS doesn’t know how many of the targeted branches are on reservations, according to spokesperson Pete Nowacki, but a look at the list indicates that in Arizona, 5 of the 11 closings appear to be on reservations, including the homelands of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and White Mountain Apache Tribe, while some 10 of 80 South Dakota closings are. Critics of the USPS plans, including Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), have noted that shutting every single one of the 3,600-plus offices on the list would save just seven-tenths of one percent of the agency’s annual operating budget.
Native voters facing the loss of their local branch can’t rely on the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect their access to voting via mail—and by extension, their post office—according to Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. VRA’s prohibitions against actions limiting enfranchisement are directed at states and other local jurisdictions, but not at the federal government or its agencies, he says.
Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, points out that the USPS isn’t closing branches with the express purpose of affecting voting. However, the idea is part of what she calls “a systemic whole,” along with other new barriers to the ballot box, such as additional identification requirements and obstacles to registration. “Across the country, I see the impact of the new voting laws falling on underserved communities, not on suburban America,” MacNamara says. “Those living in suburban America, who have so many conveniences and aren’t reliant on the post office for voting, have a duty to think of others with less privileges and access.”