Justice Department Proposes Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act of 2015
On May 21, 2015, the Department of Justice (Department) proposed legislation to Congress to increase access to voting for American Indians and Alaska Natives in Indian Country. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the proposed Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act of 2015 will “help remove the significant and unnecessary barriers that for too long have confronted American Indians and Alaska Natives attempting to cast their ballots.” The proposal has not yet been introduced by any member of Congress. We attach a letter to tribal leaders from the Office of Tribal Justice summarizing the proposal. The draft proposal may be found here: http://www.justice.gov/tribal/department-justice-proposes-legislation-improve-access-voting-american-indians-and-alaska
The Department’s proposal is the result of a series of consultations led by the Justice Department with Indian Country in 2014 regarding the need to provide access to polling locations on Indian reservations. We reported on those consultations in our General Memoranda 14-069 (August 29, 2014), 14-056 (July 25, 2014), and 14-041 (June 13, 2014).
The proposal is specific to elections in which federal offices are on the ballot. The proposal would require states or counties with Indian lands, upon the request of a tribe, to set up at least one polling place per reservation in a location selected by the tribe. The proposal would require additional polling places in locations selected by the tribe “if, based on the totality of circumstances, it is shown that providing fewer such polling places would result in members of the Tribe having less opportunity to vote than other citizens have”. The measure also would require states to provide tribal polling places with the same level of technology, including voting machines, available elsewhere in the state. It would require states to provide voting machines, ballots, and other necessary items at the new tribal polling places to the same extent that they are provided elsewhere. States would be required to compensate workers at the new tribal polling places to the same extent as they are compensated elsewhere in the state. States would be required to use the same voting procedures at tribal polling places as are used elsewhere in the state, whether those procedures include same-day registration, election-day voting, early voting, as well as having the same opening and closing hours. Tribes must make the request for a polling place in a timely manner and certify that they have arranged for access to and qualified staffing of the polling facility.
Significantly, the proposal would provide a new enforcement mechanism that gives both the United States and Indian tribes the authority to bring a civil suit against a state for declaratory or injunctive relief. The bill would also allow a prevailing party, including an Indian tribe, to collect attorney’s fees.
The Department’s proposal notes that despite the inclusion of American Indians and Alaska Natives as protected groups under the Voting Rights Act, their voting participation rates lag well behind the general U.S. population. The Department reports that in Alaska, turnout among Alaska Natives often falls 15 to 20 or more percentage points below the non-Native turnout rate. The Department blames “unequal access to polling places” as a “significant contributing factor.”
Please let us know if you would like further information regarding the Department of Justice’s proposed Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act of 2015.