Oklahoma attorneys, advocates reflect on new Native American Voting Rights bill


Native Organizers Alliance volunteers meet with candidates at the Native American Presidential Forum in 2019. From left, Jennifer Bailey, Jasha Lyons Echohawk, volunteer; Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, former Seattle Mayor candidate Colleen Echohawk, volunteer; and Cherie Thunder, volunteer from the Menominee Reservation of Wisconsin. (Provided/ Jennifer Bailey)

Three people with stakes in indigenous voter rights in Oklahoma are looking to the Native American Voting Rights Act, co-introduced by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) to help address voting and election problems in Oklahoma tribes.

“This legislation greatly improves the tools and resources available to help Native Americans exercise their right to vote, which is especially important for those living in rural areas,” Cole said when he introduced the bill to the House alongside U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) on Aug. 13. 

Native Organizers Alliance is a volunteer group known for helping to organize and build Indigenous community leaders and groups. One primary effort of NOA has been getting indigenous communities organized for national elections. 

The community organization helps Indigenous people in registering to vote and going to the polls to participate in tribal, state and federal elections. 

The organization serves several states and tribes across the nation, including Oklahoma. Jennifer Bailey, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe, volunteers there when needed.

Bailey said she’s hoping Cole and Davids’ bill will address some of the long-standing concerns she’s had for voting participation in her own tribe.

“A lot of them don’t trust the voting process,” Bailey said. “They feel like it’s built against them. In reality it is the voter suppression that’s a tactic to refrain Native Americans from actually voting and exercising their rights to vote. Voting rights is a trust responsibility by the federal government to the Native Americans. It’s a constitutional right for everybody.”

Victoria Holland, a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, said in her tribe only a small portion of eligible voters actually vote. 

“I am sure this would also be reflected in national elections,” Holland said. “While there are several reasons this could be, lack of access shouldn’t be one of them.”

​Holland is an attorney with Devol and Associates, working with several tribes across Oklahoma. She said she supports Cole’s introduction of the Native American Voting Rights Act because it addresses obstacles which can make voting inaccessible to Indigenous people.

Besides the obvious — lacking trust in the federal government following cultural and physical genocide — there are additional obstacles Bailey said have an impact in Oklahoma tribal voting.

Bailey said she thinks the main thing Oklahoma tribal voters felt was hindering their ability to vote was tribal identification cards are often not an acceptable form of ID to enter polls or register to vote. Many tribal members don’t have a state-issued ID.

“I think this (bill) is just going to be something that will potentially increase voters for Native Americans in Oklahoma,” Bailey said.

Cole and Davids’ voting rights bill addresses voting problems on reservations and tribal service areas. Another obstacle to Indigenous voters is that some states, such as Montana, require a physical address to register to vote. Many tribal citizens who live on tribal land have a PO box. 

Other states prohibit hand-delivering other people’s ballots. Indigenous residents of reservations often share cars, sometimes needing family members or friends to deliver the ballots for them or their families.

This would allow states like Oklahoma to have funds necessary to implement polling places near tribal land or service areas, and tribes would now have a say in where to put them. Tribes will also be notified directly of the number of voting locations in their communities, Bailey said.

Funding is another area the bill is supposed to address, Bailey said. There is a $10 million allowance built into the bill for a Native American Voting Rights Task Force grant, which is meant to help make voting easier for Native people.  

A.J. Ferate of Counsel, Spencer Fane LLP, a law firm in Oklahoma City, said he is willing to hear more about Cole’s bill to learn the nuances of its impact on Indian Country. 

But in his several years practicing election law, including working with several Oklahoma tribes, he doesn’t think the real issue in getting Indigenous people to vote lies in state or federal elections.

Ferate said he thinks the problem lies in the integrity of voting in many of the communities. 

“What is a concern to me is the voting structure, the voting systems, the integrity of voting within Indian Country,” Ferate said. “I feel like that’s significantly more of a concern that needs to be addressed.”

He said the lack of separation of powers in some tribal governments can cause problems in keeping certain structures of the government accountable. 

“That’s one of the difficult things I see across tribes,” Ferate said. “These judges hold their jobs because the chief appointed them, or the chief hired them. And the chief has the power to remove them. That’s the meaningful problem right? I mean, if you’re hired to be a Supreme Court justice, and the tribe is one of the parties you are hearing arguments against, even these judges feel like their jobs are in jeopardy if they were to go against the tribe.”

While these issues exist on some level in all governments, on the federal level, Congress has seen historic changes in the political participation and inclusion of Indigenous folks.

Bailey said she thinks the recent appointments are a promising sign for Indigenous voter rights in Oklahoma and Indian Country.

For Holland, it’s a testament of Indigenous resiliency.

“Anytime there is an Indigenous person in high- ranking capacity I think that is just a testament to how far, and how resilient, Indigenous people are,” Holland said. “There was a time, not long ago, where Indigenous people were supposed to be terminated. We weren’t supposed to be here today, but we are. We are doing important things and it’s inspiring.”

Nancy Marie Spears, a Gaylord News reporter based in Washington, is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more stories from Gaylord News visit GaylordNews.net.

Correction: AJ Ferate’s work history was changed to reflect the amount of time AJ Ferate has practiced election law in Oklahoma.