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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislature considers removing barriers to voting on reservations

By Ryan Blake The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Washington could remove barriers to registering to vote and casting ballots on reservations, where voter participation is lower than the rest of the state.

Committees in the House and Senate on Wednesday considered identical versions of the Native American Voting Rights Act, which would allow tribal members with nontraditional addresses to register and be mailed ballots and allow tribes to request more drop boxes.

Problems with addresses and distant drop boxes prevent tribal members from registering and voting, said Alex Hur, who represents One America and Washington Voting Justice Coalition.

“We believe that our democracy is at its best and strongest when every voice is heard and every vote is counted – every eligible voter should be able to fully participate in our democracy – and that our laws should encourage participation,” Hur told the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee.

Hur cited statistics from the National Congress of American Indians that indicate tribal members nationwide have a 14 percent lower voter turnout.

Many of those voters live at nontraditional addresses that don’t conform to city styles, and others have multiple addresses or no permanent address, which makes registering and voting by mail difficult.

Mail also is less reliable for tribal members and rural communities in general, said Jacqueline De León, Isleta Pueblo staff attorney. Completed ballots take much longer to reach their destination, if residents even receive ballots at all. Post offices also can be distant on large reservations, and often are not open during hours accessible to those who work.

Gerrymandering has split the Colville Reservation across multiple legislative districts, so some tribal members had difficulty registering because their listed address, a post office box, was in one district but they live in another, De León said.

Online registration is also difficult, as many parts of reservations cannot access broadband. Less than 10 percent of tribal lands nationally have broadband access, according to an estimate from the Federal Trade Commission.

The bill would allow tribes to request voter registration services be provided at state and tribal facilities on reservations. Voters could register using those buildings’ address as well. They also would be able to register using nontraditional addresses and online with valid tribal identification cards.

Along with requesting more drop boxes, tribes could determine where they would be placed on a reservation.