US Justice Department eyes voting rights changes for American Indians, Alaska Natives

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking legislation that would require state and local election officials to work with American Indian tribes to locate at least one polling place on or near each tribe's land.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the changes are needed because "significant and unnecessary barriers" exist for American Indians and Alaska Natives who want to cast ballots. American Indians sometimes have to travel great distances to vote, face language barriers and, in places like Alaska, do not have the same amount of time to vote as others.

The Justice Department outlined its proposal in letters Thursday to House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden, after a year of consultation with tribes on voting access.

"This is an important step forward to saying Native votes are just as important," said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "In our communities, having access definitely will make the difference in making tribal membership feel like citizens of America and be able to vote."

The legislation proposed as a stand-alone bill also would require that states provide the same equipment for tribal polling locations as other sites around the state, provide equal compensation to poll workers on reservations, and expand access to voting through early voting, extended hours or same-day registration if that's provided elsewhere in the state. Tribes with particularly large reservations could request more than one polling site.

Litigation surrounding satellite polling sites for reservations in South Dakota and Montana, and translation of voting materials into Alaska Native languages helped push the issue forward, the NCAI said. In conversations with Justice Department officials and in presentations to tribes, the organization cited the long distances some tribal members have to travel to vote. The nearest polling site for tribal members on the Nevada portion of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation is more than 100 miles away in Elko. Members of the Hopi tribe in northwestern Arizona must drive 90 miles to Joseph City to vote. A polling site in Erda, Utah, serves the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians, whose reservation is nearly 165 miles away.

Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery said despite reforms through the Voting Rights Act and other measures, American Indian participation in elections remains low. Turnout for Alaska Natives has been 20 percentage points or more lower than non-Natives, the Justice Department said. Delery said the legislation would help address the gap.

"As citizens of a nation founded upon the principles of liberty and equality, Native Americans have faced unacceptable barriers to participating in the franchise, a situation aggravated by a history of discrimination, poverty and, significantly, great distances from polling places," he said in a statement.

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