In a new step to boost voting access for American Indians and Alaska Natives, Attorney General Eric Holder today suggested the idea of requiring state and local election administrators whose territory includes tribal lands to place at least one polling site in a location chosen by the tribal government. Attorney General Holder said the Justice Department would begin consulting with tribal authorities about the concept, and following consultations, would seek to cooperate with Congress on enacting the potential proposal.
Attorney General Holder said action was necessary to confront the range of factors that have contributed to the reduced voting access experienced by American Indians and Alaska Natives. Those factors include inaccessible polling places in tribal areas, English-only ballots for areas with limited English proficiency, and "precinct realignment" practices that attempt to combine geographically isolated Native communities.
"These conditions are not only unacceptable, they're outrageous," said Attorney General Holder. "As a nation, we cannot, and we will not, simply stand by as the voices of Native Americans are shut out of the democratic process. I am personally committed to working with tribal authorities -- and with Congress -- to confront disparities and end misguided voting practices once and for all."
Attorney General Holder made the remarks in his weekly video message, which was posted on the Justice Department's website.
Later today, Associate Attorney General Tony West will expand on this announcement in his remarks at the National Congress of American Indian Mid-year Conference in Anchorage, Alaska. In his remarks, Associate Attorney General West will denounce the use of discriminatory practices used to prevent certain groups from participating in the voting process and further discuss the need to take critical next steps to tackle disenfranchisement among Indian Americans and Alaska Natives.
"Our proposal would give American Indian and Alaska Native voters a right that most other citizens take for granted: a polling place in their community where they can cast a ballot and receive voter assistance to make sure their vote will be counted," Associate Attorney General West will say in his remarks. "We take this step because voting is a legal right we guarantee to our citizens. We do it because it is right. And we do it because our shared history compels no less."
The complete text of Attorney General Holder's video message is copied below:
"At every level of our nation's Department of Justice, my colleagues and I are firmly committed to protecting the voting rights of every eligible American. Unfortunately, when it comes to exercising this fundamental right, many individuals and communities face significant obstacles. And this is particularly true among American Indian and Alaska Native populations.
"All too often, tribal communities must contend with inaccessible polling places, reduced voting hours -- and even requirements for mail-in, English-only ballots in places with low literacy rates and limited English proficiency. In some areas in Alaska, for example, state election officials have engaged in "precinct realignment" practices that combine two or more geographically isolated Native communities that are accessible to one another only by air or boat. For some voters, this means that casting a ballot would require them to cross a body of water or a mountain range that's impassable on a snowy November Election Day.
"Let me be clear: these conditions are not only unacceptable -- they're outrageous. As a nation, we cannot -- and we will not -- simply stand by as the voices of Native Americans are shut out of the democratic process. And I am personally committed to working with tribal authorities -- and with Congress -- to confront disparities and end misguided voting practices once and for all.
"As Attorney General, I support taking whatever steps are necessary to guarantee that voters have access to polling places on Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages. One idea in this regard would be federal legislation requiring any state or local election administrator whose territory includes all or part of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village, or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government. In other words, we suggest that each tribe in the nation should have at least one polling place in a location of its choice. To consider this idea, the Justice Department will officially enter into formal consultations with sovereign tribes. If the tribes support it, the department will formally propose legislation to Congress and work to enact it.
"For decades upon decades, American Indians and Alaska Natives have faced a distinctive history of discrimination that has adversely affected their right to vote. As I made clear last November -- at a White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington -- this Department of Justice and this Administration will never waver in our commitment to tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Today, we're taking a critical step to make good on that commitment. And we're reaffirming our dedication to expanding the ability of native peoples to exercise their most fundamental rights, to chart their own courses, and to build the better and brighter futures that they and their children deserve."