Imagine if, in the 2016 elections, you had to drive 104 miles (167 km) to your nearest polling station, like National Congress of American Indians research found those people living in the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada do, or 163 miles (262 km), like residents of the Goshute Reservation in Utah do. Or imagine if you had to take a plane flight to the nearest polling place because you cannot get to it by road, which was the case for several Native communities in 2008, when the state of Alaska attempted a “district realignment” to eliminate polling places in their villages. That’s just half the trip. In those circumstances, can you really be said to be enjoying full voting rights? Consider, too, that many reservations do not have access to early voting, so they will have just one day on which to make that astonishingly long journey. You can imagine the line at that polling place: either it will be very long because everyone is forced to go on that same day, or very short because not many people could afford an entire day off work to vote – that is if they even have a car and a driver’s license.
In an attempt to remedy these problems, the Department of Justice recently proposed the Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act. It would provide polling places at locations of the tribes’ choosing, likely remedying the 100 mile drive for tens of thousands of voters. The DOJ proposal is not perfect because, as currently written, it contains some conditions that will not work for some communities such as the requirement to provide all poll workers and election officials and also ensure that they are adequately trained. Some tribes, especially smaller ones of 200-300 people or less, may not have the capacity or expertise to do that.
If the goal is truly equal access, then American Indian and Alaska Native communities should just be able to request a polling place that is not disproportionately far and request early voting and get both those things – no strings attached. They too should be able to stop by polling stations on their way home from work, like so many other Americans can.