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Coronavirus Adds To Voting Challenges For Native American Community


There have long been more barriers to voting in rural Native American communities than most places in the U.S. Now the coronavirus is adding another. Wyoming Public Radio's Savannah Maher reports.

SAVANNAH MAHER, BYLINE: A week ago today, as the Wind River Reservation braced for snow, Wyoming state Representative Andi Clifford squeezed in some campaigning.

ANDI CLIFFORD: (Unintelligible).

MAHER: Clifford, a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, is running for reelection. Because of the pandemic, she and her team have been spending a lot of time outside in the cold.

CLIFFORD: We think of our ancestors and what they've gone through, you know, under the elements and stuff. So it's a little bit of suffering for a couple of hours, but I don't care.

MAHER: When two women pull up in a pickup, Clifford hands them a voting guide.

CLIFFORD: So did you get to vote yet?



CLIFFORD: OK. You can go in early - the Lander Courthouse, 450 North Second...

MAHER: But most of Clifford's constituents wait until Election Day when they can vote on the reservation. Depending where on Wind River you live and the weather, driving to the county's only early voting center takes anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour.

CLIFFORD: However, I'm encouraging people to go because the coronavirus is at a spike here, and I don't want them to be quarantined and not be able to go and vote on November 3.

MAHER: Wind River is far from the only reservation facing multiple voting barriers this year.

SAMANTHA KELTY: It's just layered - obstacle on top of obstacle on top of obstacle.

MAHER: Samantha Kelty is an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF. She says strict voter registration laws disproportionately impact Natives in some places. Poor postal service on reservations makes voting by mail a challenge, and then there's what NARF calls the tyranny of distance, a problem that's exacerbated by the pandemic.

KELTY: It's caused worsening economic conditions or loss of jobs. And so when it was hard enough to find enough money for a tank of gas to get to the county seat, now it's just impossible.

MAHER: This year, NARF worked to secure satellite election offices on all seven reservations in Montana, where many Native people travel two to three times farther than non-Natives to get to the polls. NARF also helped secure the right of third-party volunteers to collect ballots and deliver them to polls in Montana and Nevada. Tribes there say that's an important tool for getting out the vote.

KELTY: All these issues have been ongoing, and they are just - have the spotlight on them now with COVID-19.

MAHER: But the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona lost its court battle for an early voting center that it requested because of the pandemic, and one county in South Dakota cited the virus as a reason not to provide early voting on the Pine Ridge Reservation. And there's another voting obstacle that the pandemic has worsened in Indian country - the feeling that Native issues will be ignored no matter who's in office. Allie Young, who's Navajo, says the slow rollout of federal coronavirus aid to tribal nations intensified some Native people's distrust of the government.

ALLIE YOUNG: But at the same time, this election is too important to sit out. So I was trying to come up with ways of, how can we speak to our Native voters?

MAHER: So she put on a trail ride. Young and 15 other voters rode about 10 miles on horseback to cast their ballots early in Kayenta, Ariz.

YOUNG: You know, our elders fought for our right to vote, and they rode more miles and longer hours to get to the polls. So let's do this in honor of them.

MAHER: Young hopes videos of the ride on social media will inspire more Native people to get to the polls, even if it's not easy.

For NPR News, I'm Savannah Maher. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.