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Rhonda Whiting gives testimony on Native American voting rights

By Lailani Upham

Rhonda Whiting (courtesy photo)Rhonda Whiting (courtesy photo)

WASHINGTON D.C. — The history of Native American voting is the story of a group of U.S. citizens who were compelled to be incorporated into the nation and then given the rights of citizens in a haphazard, disjointed manner over many decades, explained Western Native Voice Board Member and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member Rhonda Whiting last month before the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee on access to the polls for Native Americans.

Whiting’s testimony took the stand that the history of Native people are a group of U.S. citizens who were then unlawfully denied the right to vote through illegal means and that the history of civil rights were denied even as the country demanded military service of and levied taxes on Native American citizens. “The story of the right to vote being denied to Indian people is a story still unfolding in 2014,” Whiting stated.

Whiting was invited to speak to the U.S. Senate Rules Committee by committee member Senator John Walsh, who is seeking ways to ensure equal access to the polls for Indian voters, who often face barriers in voting.

Whiting pointed out that same-day voting is under attack in Montana in the guise of the 2014 ballot measure, Legislative Referendum 126.

The purpose of LR 126 is to end same day voter registration. It is the measure, upon voter approval, that would change the deadline for late voter registration from polls closing on election day to the Friday before election day.

“Same-day voting in Montana has helped lessen some of the negative effects of the electoral system for Native Americans. It is a sad comment that as we talk about protecting voting rights in Washington, access to the polls is under attack in Montana.”

The hearing titled, “Election Administration: Examining How Early and Absence Voting Can Benefit Citizens and Administrators” included testimony from Harvard “Larry” Lomax, Registrar of Voters (retired) Clark County Election Department; and Dr. John C. Fortier, Director, Democracy Project Bipartisan Policy Center; and Ms. Kate Brown, Secretary of State, State of Oregon.

Whiting recounted the history of Native citizenship in the U.S. She stated that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted citizenship at the federal level to Native Americans. However, in several states, civil rights, including voting, of the new citizens were often abridged or even denied.

She added that the New Deal brought the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), which recognized the legitimacy of tribal governments and permitted limited self-rule, but did not solve the issue of access to the polls.

She went on to say the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 created a solid legal platform to expand minority voting rights and the legal basis for securing access to the polls for Native American citizens. However after a series of lawsuits and succeeding amendments to the Act ensued that elected officials and election administrators granted voting rights to Natives and is evident that achieving full and unfettered access to the polls for all citizens has a long way to go.

Whiting told the Committee it is her purpose of urging proposed practical solutions that will alleviate some of the problems that keep Native Americans from exercising their right to vote.

“First of all, expansion of access to registration modes will enable and facilitate voting. In-take of voting registration forms by government offices and educational facilities, for example, at Indian Health Service clinics and tribal colleges, will be a practical method for capturing voter registration forms. Plainly the federal government has a wide range of options in directing government offices to facilitate voter registration in the course of conducting other business,” Whiting stated.

Whiting urged the creation of a federal standard of electronic voting modernize the voting process. She expressed it is critical for 2014. “Electronic registration options that are secure, safe, and verifiable are desirable, particularly for younger voters who are use to conducting business on-line,” she said.

Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers President, Eric Feaver argued on a recent Ballotpedia platform, “LR-126 is clear voter suppression, and it cuts across the board of affected groups - Native Americans, university students, people who have changed addresses and veterans.”

On the same platform Montana Women Vote’s Sarah Howell contended that, “Election Day registration is a safeguard that means if you find yourself unregistered on Election Day - whether by error, because you moved, or for any other reason - you are still able to register and vote at the same time. This is particularly important for seniors, veterans who have served out of state, people who live in rural Montana, low-income folks, and others.”

“Another issue of access is the distance involved for some Natives, and other rural voters, to travel to vote. In Montana, with election services based in county seats that are considerable distances from Native communities, some Indians have to travel in excess of 100 miles to vote. It is hard to overstate the burden imposed on Native American citizens by having to travel long distances to cast their vote. The remote location of many Indian communities, coupled with the way elections are conducted, limit the ability of the Native American citizen to partake in their own government. Placing satellite early voting locations in Native communities will alleviate this barrier,” Whiting stated.

The importance to emphasize the significant economic burden that falls on some Native citizens in remote communities is a clear reason the creation of a federal satellite early voting standard will rectify this problem, she explained.

“Many members of these communities have limited economic resources and the costs imposed on them by travel to the polling place functionally prevent them from voting. It is salient that these travel costs are not borne by the average voter in the United States, most of whom vote near their place of residence,” Whiting told the Committee.

“The experience in Montana is that same-day registration expands access to the polls for many citizens with busy lives and demanding careers. The use of same-day registration by college students, working mothers, busy professionals, and U.S. service members strongly indicates that it should be a basic part of election administration. Native Americans have also benefited from same-day registration.”

In finalizing her testimony Whiting stated that simplifying the voting process and providing federal resources and authority to educate citizens on their rights and responsibilities will be invaluable in engaging Native American citizens in the civic process.

“Many Native Americans are, I am sad to say, skeptical about the motivations of the federal government given past history and current conditions. A sincere, robust program for citizen education and engagement has the potential to transform the relationship between the government and historically dis-enfranchised Indian communities.”

She urged members of the Senate Rules Committee to secure and protect voting rights for not only Native American citizen but for all by passing legislation that expands access to voting before Election Day.

She said they are practical, proven solutions to problems in voting.

Whiting closed by emphasizing that the right to cast a vote is the most fundamental right for a citizen in a democracy.

“For this right to be abridged or limited in any way harms both the substance and the spirit of our great democracy. And no words ever spoken could more true than ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

She reminded the Committee to think of the rights of their own children and the kind of nation they want to see them inherit as well.

Western Native Voice is a Native American social justice nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that work to strengthen Native American communities through citizen engagement, community organizing, and leadership development.

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