Washington State Governor Enacts Native American Voting Rights Act

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee on March 14 signed the Native American Voting Rights Act into law, which will facilitate ballot registration for Native Americans even if their homes on reservations do not have regular street addresses or numbers.

“We believe these three steps will allow tribal members to help us form a more perfect union and make good decisions about our destiny,” Inslee said during the signing ceremony, where he was joined by tribal members and legislators, local press reported. “We believe the more voices, the more wisdom.”

The bill passed the state Senate in a 34-13 vote on February 6, and the state House of Representatives passed an amended version of the bill on March 5. The House State Government and the Tribal Relations Committee allows voters to list “unmarked homes” or a building designated by a tribe in their location as their residential address if necessary, Sequim Gazette reported.

The new law requires county auditors to place at least one ballot drop box on tribes’ reservations, and the governor will have to designate state facilities to provide voter-registration services to certain tribes at their request. It will also allow tribal identification cards — including documentation that doesn’t contain a residential address — to be used for voter registration.

“This legislation provides us the opportunity to remove those barriers to be able to call to the Native Americans and tell them they matter,” Representative Debra Lekanoff, a 40th District Democrat from the town of Bow, told Sequim Gazette. She’s the first Native American woman elected to the state House.

“The excitement of an aunty going down to pick up her ballot with her little granddaughter and going to the kitchen table and filling it out and walking just another half a block and dropping it in a dropbox, on the reservation, in the middle of our America is wonderful for me,” Lekanoff added.

Representative Jim Walsh, a Republican from the city of Aberdeen, told local press, “We welcome everyone to participate in our electoral process.” However, not all states have taken a similar approach. In November 2018, a North Dakota judge ruled that Native Americans should comply with a new voter ID law that requires them to show a current street address. Most tribes in North Dakota live in reservations and do not have street addresses, and their post office box numbers don’t qualify under the current legislation.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the US District Court of North Dakota’s decision to enforce the law’s new requirements in April, and the Native American Rights Fund brought the issue to the Supreme Court in September. A month later, however, the highest court declined to intervene in a 6-2 decision, with Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg providing the dissent. The court’s decision doesn’t mean it has reached a legal determination on the law.

Native Americans weren’t guaranteed their right to vote in every state until the 1960s. They were not deemed US citizens when the country ratified its Constitution in 1788 and wouldn’t attain such right for the next 136 years. It wasn’t until 1924 that the Indian Citizenship Act granted Native Americans citizenship rights, including their ability to vote.

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and U.S. politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.