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Long-shot Senate bill could boost Native voting protections

U.S. Senate Democrats introduced legislation last week that could provide Native American communities a way to combat what they say are disenfranchising state voting laws and the recent gutting of Voting Rights Act protections.

Across the country, many Native Americans remain hamstrung by voter ID laws, polling place closures and voter registration purges.

Some counties in Montana, for example, limit the number of registration forms for reservations. Counties in Wisconsin have put heavily Native American polling locations in sheriff’s offices, which critics say can intimidate voters. Counties in Nevada and South Dakota have declined to put polling locations on reservations, and some in Arizona have shuttered tribal polling locations that they say don’t meet disability compliance standards.

The legislation offered this week would provide several tools for Native American communities to boost voter engagement, including language assistance, registration drives and early voting locations on tribal lands.

It also would restore federal oversight of counties and states that make polling place changes on tribal lands — oversight that was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The bill has no Republican co-sponsors, and it isn’t expected to gain traction.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said the bill attempts to correct many of the “insidious new barriers” that Native Americans face when they vote.

“It is more important than ever that we pass legislation to ensure that the voices of Native communities across Indian Country are heard at the ballot box,” Udall said in a statement. He serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

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The bill also would give Native voters a clear path in requesting federal election observers, while also allowing Native Americans to use their tribal IDs as a valid ID in states like Arizona and North Dakota that have strict laws, which some voting rights activists say target Native voters.

While the bill lays out several ways the federal government would financially support Native American communities in their fair election efforts — providing grants for voter registration and election education, and postage for mail-in ballots, among other assistance — it’s unclear how much it would cost. The Congressional Budget Office rarely scores a bill until later in the legislative process, and it’s unlikely this bill will gain enough bipartisan support to make it that far.

In the meantime, however, Native Americans have helped sway Senate races in Washington, South Dakota, Alaska and Montana and could have an impact in November’s midterm elections.

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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