Suquamish chairman urges Congress to expand Native American voting rights

Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman has called upon U.S. Congress to adopt a Native Voting Rights Act similar to that which was recently passed by Washington State legislature.

Forsman testified before the Elections Subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration at a hearing entitled “Native American Voting Rights: Exploring Barriers and Solutions,” on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

Forsman described the many barriers to voting facing indigenous people across the United States.

“As residents of the state of Washington, we have many on how to register to vote … Even with the seemingly voter-friendly Washington system, American Indians still face many obstacles to exercising our right to vote. The obstacles that I will discuss are not particular to Suquamish or Washington State, they are common across Indian Country,” Forsman said in his testimony.

Among the obstacles that face Native Americans when it comes to voting are jurisdictions that refuse to accept Tribal ID cards when registering to vote.

“Many tribal citizen’s primary identifications is their tribal ID cards, these individuals often do not have state-issued driver licenses or ID cards. In addition, some tribal issued IDs do not include residential addresses or signatures,” Forsman said.

This led to the second issue that some tribal citizens also lack the type of home addresses that correlate with the standard address system, with many using Post Office Boxes or other addresses not accepted for establishing residency when registering to vote.

A third barrier, specific to Washington state, is the locations of ballot drop boxes that are often outside of reservation boundaries and available only for limited hours.

“This created a hardship for many tribal citizens that do not have means of transportation,” Forsman said.

Washington State’s Native American Voting Rights Act, (NAVRA) initially adopted by the state legislature on March 5, 2019, addressed each of these challenges.

Forsman urged the committee to consider similar provisions as Congress addresses voting rights issues nationwide. Noting specifically, what NAVRA has done in the state to make it easier for Native Americans to vote.

Under NAVRA, tribal citizens in Washington State will be able to use tribal ID cards to register to vote; tribal members are allowed to request that at least one ballot box be located on their reservation, and it allows tribal citizens to use nontraditional residential addresses for voter registration.

For example, the location of the ballot box on the reservation can serve as the residential address. This is especially important for homeless citizens and others without a stable residence.

“Since the passage of NAVRA, tribes in Washington are now partners with the State,” Forsman said. “The Suquamish Tribe is now able to have direct involvement with the state in planning and ensuring that our people do not face obstacles while exercising their right to vote.”

Forsman, who is also a member of the Executive Board for the National Congress of American Indians and noted NCAI strongly favors legislation such as HR 1694, the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2019, to remove voting barriers.