WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, recently led an oversight hearing, “Voting Matters in Native Communities” to hear from tribal leaders and Native voting rights advocates about ongoing challenges to exercising the right to vote in Indian Country. The committee also considered the less-formally documented Native Hawaiian voter experience.
In his opening statement, Schatz explained his reason for holding the hearing:
“We in Congress must stay vigilant and keep up the fight to protect the franchise, especially for communities of color,” said Chairman Schatz. “And as members of the Indian Affairs Committee, we owe a particular duty to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians to ensure their votes are counted, not discounted. Because voting is sacred. And Native votes matter.”
Hearing witnesses shared their thoughts on the importance of today’s hearing and expressed the need for Congress to pass the Frank Harrison, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and Miguel Trujillo Native American Voting Rights Act of 2021.
“We as Native people, we take political action by casting our vote,” said Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairwoman Janet Davis. “[But] voting restrictions and discriminatory laws discourage potential voters from wanting to vote,” “We are here, we vote, and we count.”
“Protecting the right to vote is not a partisan issue,” said Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka. “It’s a fundamental civil rights issue for Alaska Natives. Now is the time to pass S.4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, and Title III of that bill, NAVRA, which is co-named after a great Alaska civil rights leader, Elizabeth Peratrovich.”
“The Native American Voting Rights Act, championed in the House by two Native members – Republican Tom Cole and Democrat Sharice Davids – would address the glaring structural deficiencies facing Native communities by mandating on-reservation voting services and accommodations for homes that do not receive mail delivery and do not have residential addresses,” said Native American Rights Fund Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León. “It would also ensure access by requiring services be equitable on and off reservations. The need for federal action is urgent and compelling.”
“Congress has a trust responsibility to enact voting rights legislation to protect constitutionally-guaranteed rights of Natives to vote,” said National Congress of American Indians Secretary Aaron Payment. “The ability to vote is a fundamental right and a foundational principle of any democracy … No matter where we live, what ID cards we have, or what language we speak, Native people should have fair and equal access to voting.”
“To understand Native American voting challenges, one must recognize the vast differences in experiences, opportunities, and realities facing on-reservation voters,” said Arizona State University Indian Legal Clinic Director Patty Ferguson-Bohnee. “Language, socioeconomic disparities, lack of access to transportation, lack of residential addresses, lack of access to mail, the digital divide, and distance are just some of the factors that impede access to the polls and participation in the political process.”
“Before the 2020 election, Hawaiʻi saw two decades of voter turnout with percentages in the thirties and forties – some of the lowest turnout in the United States,” said Community Advocate and Principal of Palikū Films Nāʻālehu Anthony. “A healthy democracy requires representation, and we as Native Hawaiians need our perspectives weighed and counted so that we may and once again take on the kuleana – responsibility – for this place we call home.”