Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw), the president of the National Congress of American Indians, is pushing voter registration for American Indians in a way never seen before. He wants the largest-ever Native turnout this year at the polls and has joined with Rock the Vote to make that happen. One key element of the campaign is to get the federal government to establish voter registration at Indian Health Service facilities under the provisions of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Among other things, the act requires state governments to allow people to register to vote when they renew their driver's licenses or apply for social services.
On reservations and in urban centers, the IHS provides members of federally recognized tribes health care and advocacy. It runs 142 hospitals, health centers and 50 health stations on reservations and about 30 urban Indian health projects where voter registration could be handled. Although the IHS runs under the supervision of Dr. Yvette Roubideaux (Sicangu Lakota-Rosebud), it is an operating division of the Department of Health and Human Services led by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. You can click here to send an email urging her to make IHS facilities available for voter registration. Not only to make it a possibility, but to make it a reality by providing the funding required. That amounts to a modest half-million dollars.
In addition to directly lobbying in Washington, D.C., Keel is sending a letter in support of the registration idea directly to each of the dozens of IHS facilities, along with a copy of a report on the Indian vote from the research and advocacy organization, Dēmos.
Keel writes: “The Indian Health Service is a key agency in delivering on the federal government’s trust responsibility to tribes. As outlined in the report, IHS facilities, conveniently and centrally located in many tribal communities, are ideal voter registration sites. Joining other federal and state agencies in offering this service to clients will make a large impact in tribal communities, in the national Native Vote and in furthering the fulfillment of the federal trust responsibility."
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Only 40 percent of eligible American Indians were registered to vote in 2008. As Keel told the mid-year gathering of the NCAI in Lincoln, Nebraska, two weeks ago: "This should be considered a civic emergency":
In the next five months we have a great deal of work to do to ensure that our people are ready for the 2012 election.
Over the last century since securing our rightful place at the ballot box, Native people have remained one of the most disenfranchised group of voters in the United States. Today as a result, two out of every five eligible American Indian and Alaska Native voters are not registered to vote. [...] There are a number of concrete actions that we can take now to change this situation. [...]
The Native Vote—is more than a civic duty, it’s an expression of our unique role as the first Americans. Anyone who says otherwise, anyone who might doubt our civil rights as first peoples or shrug off voting as not part of Native culture—should consider the fate of our nations if we had been silenced at the ballot box last century.
New Solutions to Strengthen American Democracy, concluded that the Indian Health Service voting registration idea is completely in line with public assistance agency registration mandated in the Registration Act of 1993:
Dēmos found that when the law was implemented, tens of thousands of new voters were added in North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois. “In Illinois, the number of public agency registration applications is now at levels 18 times the rate before re-implementation” of that voting registration law. That’s exactly the kind of boost that would be needed to register a million American Indian and Alaska Native voters. This process would also be cost-effective voter registration; the Congressional Budget Office estimates the total cost at less than $500,000 over a four-year period.In addition to the push for IHS site voter registration, via its Native Vote.org, NCAI is partnering with the non-profit Rock the Vote. Here's a NativeVote ad urging young Indians to vote featuring one of the stars of the popular series Twilight:
“The Native community in the United States is increasingly making its voice heard in state and national elections,” the Dēmos report said. “Unfortunately, most of our history has been one of state mistreatment and exclusion of indigenous peoples. There are still problems and tensions ... Making voter registration easier and more accessible through designation of Indian Health Service facilities as voter registration agencies will not solve all the problems that are causing low rates of participation among American Indians and Alaska Natives or fully address the ongoing mistrust. Nonetheless, it would be an important step that would have a significant positive impact on the voting rights of thousands of Americans.”
One project will be “Rock the Native Vote Youth Week,” Sept. 24-28, 2012. This will coincide with National Voter Registration day on Sept. 25. During that week, organizers nationwide will participate at "tribal schools and Native youth programs in a range of civics education, including a tribal specific supplement to Rock the Vote’s Democracy Day class. Participants, such as local chapters of Boys and Girls Clubs of America, will educate Native young people about the power of civic engagement and the importance of registering their parents, family members, and one day, themselves, to vote."
Getting registered is, for Indians, just part of battle to get unfettered access at the polls. Since Indians gained citizenship in 1924, states and counties have tried all kinds of chicanery to keep them from exercising their rights. This ranges from blocking actual suffrage until 1948 in some states and as late as 1980 in one. In recent years, attempts to squelch the Indian vote has ranged from denials based on tribal identity cards in Minnesota to at-large elections in Wyoming, from refusing to provide language assistance under the 1965 Voting Rights Act in New Mexico to discriminating against reservation-dwelling Indians by having fewer polling places per capita and fewer hours allowed for early voting in South Dakota. All of these measures have helped suppress the vote, both directly, and indirectly by discouraging Indians from even trying.
This can be changed.
Keel's campaign in partnership with other Get Out the Vote organizations is as important as any effort to ensure that people get the opportunity to express their democratically guaranteed rights at the ballot box.