Opinion. The cornerstone of our democracy is the right to vote. However, for most of our country’s history, Native Americans were denied that right. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 finally granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S., but even after that law, states could restrict Native voting rights. It was not until 1962 that Utah became the final state to allow Natives the right to vote. For much of the 20th century, until federal Indian law reforms of the 1970s, Cherokees were not allowed to elect leaders of our own tribe.
To this day, barriers prevent Indian Country from fully making our voices heard and our votes count. Many Native Americans live in remote, rural locations with poor road conditions and no easy way to reach distantly placed polling locations. Many tribal lands have limited access to post offices and nontraditional mailing addresses, which makes it extremely difficult to register to vote or mail in a ballot. In some cases, the lack of Native language translation during the voting process prevents our Native language-speaking citizens from voting and further endangers our languages.
Fortunately, new legislation recently introduced in Congress can fix many of these issues. The Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA), co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS), would go a long way to ensuring equal voting access throughout Indian Country.
This bipartisan legislation gives tribes a say in where and how many polling places are located on tribal lands, as well as requiring tribal consent before a state or precinct reduces our access to voting. It would ensure that tribal ID cards are allowed as identification for voting, which is already the case in Oklahoma. Additionally, it establishes a Native American voting task force to address the unique issues faced by voters on tribal lands.
For far too long, these decisions have been made by people who do not understand the history and challenges faced by tribal communities. At its core, NAVRA strengthens tribal sovereignty and self-determination over how to ensure everyone on tribal lands has access to the sacred right to vote.
As Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, I am urging Congress to swiftly pass this legislation. Our government relations team, led by Cherokee Nation Delegate to Congress Kim Teehee, is working with members of Congress to get this legislation passed and ensure that Native voices are heard in every election.
At Cherokee Nation, we work diligently to ensure that Cherokee citizens are registered to vote in elections at all levels and provide education about the candidates and issues. The Cherokee Vote program has registered nearly 14,000 voters since 2013.
We are also proud of our efforts to make voting easy within our own electoral system. No excuse absentee voting by mail is universally available for Cherokee voters. Last year I signed legislation removing notary requirements for absentee voting. Unlike many states, we do not disenfranchise voters who commit crimes and fulfill their criminal sentences. So, as we urge Congress and states to make voting easier, we already set a high standard.
We do not have a true democracy until every adult citizen has universal, easy access to voting. Throughout history, our votes have been denied or suppressed, but we would not be silenced. Today we continue the fight for our rights, until everyone in Indian Country can freely cast their ballot.
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
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