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Voter suppression in some communities is ‘by design’

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“Native American Vote” by David Seibold.

By Emily Rose Thorne, Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism

Voter suppression in the Native American community is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Native American populations, who could tip the scales in several key states, testified before Congress about the voter suppression they experience.

Prohibitive distances from voting locations have posed significant challenges for voters living on reservations, who have reported travel times of several hours just to cast their votes. Voter ID laws can also exclude those who live on reservations. For example, in North Dakota, new legislation passed in 2017 excluded Native Americans who don’t have residential addresses from being able to vote.

According to some advocates, these obstacles are by design.

“In 2017, North Dakota passed a law that was designed to reduce the tribal vote. The state law requires IDs to have the current residential street address. This goes beyond the typical voter registration requirements. Our rural reservations and housing systems were not set up that way. Many of our members use a peel box for their addresses. We recently began developing community streets and housings with residential addresses. But our reservation is mostly rural. The state knew this, and they used it to suppress tribal voters,” said Roger White Owl, chief executive officer of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation at the Congressional hearing.

Judith LeBlanc, a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and director of Native Organizers Alliance in New York City, said the COVID-19 pandemic brought a new dimension of voter suppression to tribal communities. But despite the hardship, tribes and some lawmakers are taking action to try and reduce the barriers to access that affect Native American citizens.

“We just found out today that in one of our sites, on one reservation, one of our canvassers has caught COVID. We are trying to ensure that all of the voter engagement, the voter registration, getting people to the polls is done with PPE with every protection possible,” she said.

Indigenous people are not the only community that have been shut out from voting in 2020.

Every American over the age of 18 has the right to vote — that is, unless they have been convicted of a felony. Criminal justice activists in California are currently pushing to restore the rights of 50,000 individuals on parole as the November election approaches.

And even those without a criminal record may face barriers to accessing their legal right to vote. Earlier this year, Native Americans testified at Congressional hearings about the ways in which their votes were being suppressed, too, although they gained the legal right to vote in 1924.

Richard Mireles, 42, is a formerly incarcerated voters’ rights activist of Crop Organization, a team of parolees previously sentenced to life in prison. When he was released from a California prison after two decades inside, one of his primary desires was to vote for the first time. He was disheartened to learn that his right to vote had been stripped due to his conviction.

“I said, ‘well, if I can’t vote, I want to sign up to be one of the people to, you know, stand up by Walmart or wherever it is, and encourage others to vote,’” Mireles said. “I want to be a part of the community and want to be a part of a solution.”

California voters are considering a measure that would restore voting rights to people like Mireles who were convicted of felonies and served their sentences: Ballot Measure Proposition 17. Advocates say that reinstating voting rights for felons contributes to the health of American democracy by allowing felons to reintegrate fully into society. It would also address racial disparities in policing.

The Sentencing Project estimates that 2.5% of Americans — or just under six million individuals — are disenfranchised at the ballot box due to past convictions. Of those, Black and Latinx Americans are disproportionately affected: although Black Americans comprise just 6% of California’s adult population, 26% of California’s parolee population is Black. Latinx individuals make up 40% of the parolee population but only 35% of the adult population in the state. That means that stripping former felons of their right to vote keeps mostly people of color away from the polls.

“Unfortunately, California has a long history with felony disenfranchisement, and restrictions on voting for people with convictions was actually included in the state’s first constitution in the 1800s,” said Brittany Stonesifer, a voting rights attorney at the ACLU of California. “It was part of a wave of Jim Crow segregation that passed after the Civil War, and it continues to be in the state constitution.”

Stonesifer said that allowing former felons to exercise civic rights reduces the rate of recidivism, according to studies in states that do reinstate voter rights upon release from prison.

Tariq Palmer, another formerly incarcerated person currently working with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said that losing his right to vote even after serving his sentence has made him feel powerless. It’s a way of keeping felons — and people of color — from having an active role in the political process and effectively extends their punishment, he said. 

“I feel like my purpose in life is to contribute to the awakened consciousness of our people, and one of those ways is to be able to vote, is to be able to elect people who would change how prison functions, how parole functions, how police function,” Palmer said. “Not being able to express my voice in that, this election, when it is Black Lives Matter … where it is more important to be a Black man in this society, and I am unable to participate, makes me feel less than a man. But I know that I’m more than that. So I keep pushing, because everyone should have the right to vote.”

Hear the story here.

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