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A bipartisan elections bill is the rarest of creatures, one many Americans have never seen in the wild.
Congressional Democrats are united behind sweeping voting rights legislation that won’t pass the Senate so long as the filibuster exists, because Republicans are united against it. Republican legislators in Texas, Georgia, Florida and elsewhere have passed numerous voting restrictions over united Democratic opposition.
But on one sliver of voting issues, it seems lawmakers might — might! — be able to agree.
The Native American Voting Rights Act, or NAVRA, was introduced in the House last month by Representatives Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, and Sharice Davids, Democrat of Kansas. Senator Ben Ray Luján, Democrat of New Mexico, introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
It would let tribes determine the number and location of voter registration sites, polling places and ballot drop boxes on their reservations; bar states from closing or consolidating those sites without tribal consent; require states with voter identification laws to accept tribal ID; and create a $10 million grant program for state-level task forces to examine barriers to voting access for Native Americans.
The bill — endorsed by many Native American tribes, as well as advocacy groups such as the Native American Rights Fund, the National Congress of American Indians and Four Directions — is in the earliest stages of the legislative process. It hasn’t even had a committee hearing. Congress has been rather preoccupied with matters like stopping the government from shutting down or defaulting on its debt. While the broad voting rights measures are a high priority for Democrats, NAVRA is much lower on the list. And there is no telling how many Republicans besides Mr. Cole will get on board.
All of which is to say that passage, or even a vote, is far from guaranteed. It might become law, or it might go nowhere. But the mere existence of a voting rights bill with bipartisan sponsors is noteworthy. So I spoke with Mr. Cole, Ms. Davids and Mr. Luján this month about the legislation and its prospects.
Mr. Cole said that he and Ms. Davids — the leaders of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and two of only five Indigenous members of Congress — had decided what to include in the bill, and what not to, with bipartisan support in mind. For example, as a Republican, he didn’t want to touch issues like third-party ballot collection, which many Native voters rely on and Republican-led state legislatures have restricted.
But “there are clearly barriers for this population, particularly on reservations,” said Mr. Cole, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. “I don’t know that everybody will agree with what we’ve done, but it’s an awfully honest effort to address a real problem and to do it in a way we maximize our chances of actually passing the legislation and minimize the danger of it becoming partisan.”
Native Americans, especially those living on reservations, face an array of obstacles to voting. Many have to travel hours round-trip to vote, or even to register to vote, because their reservations have neither election offices nor reliable mail service. Others can’t meet voter ID requirements because they don’t have traditional addresses. Structural barriers have been exacerbated by legislation, especially in rural red states like Montana and North Dakota where Native Americans tend to vote Democratic.
Ms. Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, noted that under the trust responsibility doctrine — affirmed multiple times by the Supreme Court — the federal government is obligated to adhere to the treaties it signed with Native tribes when taking their land. Among other things, those treaties protect the sovereignty of tribes to govern themselves.
Provisions like allowing tribes to set the number and location of voting facilities, and giving tribal identification equal weight to state and federal identification, are matters of sovereignty, Ms. Davids said.
“One of the things about issues that affect the federal-tribal government-to-government relationship is that we’re often able to get bipartisan support because folks just recognize that specific relationship and federal trust responsibility that exists,” she said. “Tribal governments should be able to exercise sovereignty over, particularly, tribal lands.”
Because Democrats control if and when the bill will receive a committee vote, Mr. Cole said he believed his most important role would be in using his credibility within his party to whip Republican support for eventual floor votes.
“It’s kind of hard to say that I’m not a pretty good Republican in a partisan sense,” said Mr. Cole, who is a former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee and a former chief of staff to the Republican National Committee. “So this must not be a strictly partisan bill, or I wouldn’t be on it.”
He named Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Todd Young of Indiana as three Republicans he believed would be open to supporting the bill, which would need 10 Republican votes to clear a filibuster in the Senate if every Democrat voted for it. (I contacted all three senators’ offices on Wednesday to ask whether they were open to the bill, but none responded.)
“The urgency of this issue goes across party lines,” Mr. Luján said, adding that he had had “very promising conversations” with some Republican senators, though he did not name them.
He said it was important to “capture the essence of what this bill does, which is addressing the inequities that have been created and providing the necessary resources and oversight to affirm tribes’ rights to equal treatment and to assert their sovereignty in the electoral process.”
While we’re talking about Native American voting rights, let’s also talk briefly about redistricting. As I wrote last month, Native Americans (and many other marginalized groups) have been trying to assert themselves in the process, not only for the House but also for state legislatures.
The results have been mixed.
Take North Dakota. Native Americans there want to change the “at-large” system the state uses for its legislative districts, each of which has one state senator and two state representatives for the whole district. In contrast to a system in which Senate districts are subdivided into smaller House districts, this setup dilutes the influence of groups who are clustered in a discrete portion of the district, like Native Americans on reservations. In a subdivided district, they would be able to elect a representative of their choice, but in an at-large district, non-Native voters outnumber them and choose both representatives.
They also wanted the state’s redistricting committee to hold some of its public hearings on or near reservations so that Native Americans could participate even if they couldn’t travel to Bismarck, the capital. That hasn’t happened: All but one hearing has been in Bismarck, and the only one held elsewhere was in Fargo, which isn’t near the reservations either. And advocates say tribal leaders haven’t been included in the consultation process.
“We started very early with our requests, and I don’t think we’re going to get any of our requests honored,” Nicole Montclair-Donaghy, the executive director of North Dakota Native Vote and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in an interview last week.
They did get one thing: This week, the committee agreed to subdivide the districts containing two of North Dakota’s four Native American reservations, the Fort Berthold Reservation in the western part of the state and the Turtle Mountain Reservation in the north. But the districts containing the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake reservations will not be subdivided, and those tribes may sue as a result.
One consequence of the at-large system, Ms. Montclair-Donaghy said, is that tribes are often represented by legislators who vote against issues that are supported by an overwhelming percentage of tribal members. For instance, legislators representing the Standing Rock Reservation voted for bills that targeted protesters after the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“I think that if we had the opportunity to run for office and get elected,” Ms. Montclair-Donaghy said, “we would see a lot more representation at the county level, at the state level, to represent our people and get our issues on the radar.”
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