The climate has a voting problem

How voter suppression prevents America's most climate-concerned citizens from participating in democracy.

Welcome to HEATED, an accountability newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

It’s the final issue of Indigenous Peoples Week. So far, we’ve explored:

Today, we’ll look at barriers to voting for Native Americans across America, and explore why voter suppression is an essential issue for the climate movement.

This is what independent climate accountability journalism does. It speaks truth to those with real power—media institutions, corporations, and governments—instead of shaming individuals.

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Now let’s talk about voting!

The importance of indigenous voters

There’s a striking sentence buried six paragraphs deep in a Des Moines Register article from this past August. It reads:

An increase in Native American voters in key battleground states could overcome the margins of victory President Donald Trump earned in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina, native activists said.

Native activists, in other words, think their populations could decide whether Donald Trump gets re-elected in 2020. According to ABC News, the nonprofit Four Directions surveyed indigenous voting populations in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado, and found that “large Native populations … could actually sway the election one way or the other."

Activists aren’t the only ones who consider this a possibility. “The Native vote is absolutely going to matter,” said Richard Witmer, a political scientist from Creighton University who specializes in Native American politics, in recent comments to the Associated Press. “It’s going to matter a lot.”

If that’s right, then Native Americans could also help decide the fate of the climate. Trump’s re-election would almost certainly guarantee climate inaction at the federal level continues for the next four years. That would be a huge blow, considering scientists’ estimate that we only have 11 years left to halve carbon emissions in order to have a 50 percent chance at limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Indigenous activists are increasing their get-out-the vote campaign efforts for Native Americans this year, in part to prevent that outcome.

But those efforts could all be for naught because of barriers to indigenous voting. It won’t matter how many Native Americans show up to the polls if they are ultimately turned away.


What keeps Native people from voting

The United States has a long history of keeping Native Americans from the polls. It wasn’t until 1924 that Congress granted citizenship to indigenous peoples. Even after that, “many state-level discriminatory policies—such as banning people living on a reservation or enrolled in a tribe from voting, or instituting fees and ‘competency tests’—kept them from the polls for decades,” Business Insider reports.

Discriminatory policies still exist today, though they are less blatantly anti-Native than they once were.

The Washington Post published an in-depth article about some of the present barriers to indigenous voting last year. It starts by describing a problematic voter ID law in North Dakota, which requires citizens to have residential street addresses—not Post Office box numbers—as a condition to vote. “Many Native Americans living on rural reservations do not have traditional street addresses, and receive mail at P.O. boxes rather than at home,” the article reads.

Beyond the irony of requiring “the literal first peoples of North Dakota to prove their roots” in the state, Native activists note, there has been no documented problem with voter fraud to justify the law’s existence.

“We are being denied an inherent and moral right,” Judith LeBlanc, of the Caddo Nation and executive director of the Native Organizers Alliance told The Guardian. “This is our territory, this is our land, and for them to say that we need to have an address in order to vote is an insult at best.”

North Dakota, however, isn’t the only state where Native Americans have trouble exercising the right to vote. According to the Post:

Native Americans on reservations have long voted at very low rates, facing barriers to voting that include long travel distances to the polls, high poverty rates, and low high school graduation rates.

When native voters need to travel to reservation border towns to cast ballots, the well-documented and long-standing mistrust between Native American communities and non-native populations likely discourages voting in those areas.

Problems tend to manifest in the same states where Native turnout could make a real difference. In Nevada, for example, “some tribes have recently sued over lack of access to voter registration and polling places,” according to a report from Pacific Standard. “In Arizona, legislators moved to restrict mail-in ballots. Last year, advocates in Michigan charged that voting laws there were ‘restrictive’ on account of requiring matching addresses for voter registration and driver's licenses. In 2018, North Carolina enacted legislation requiring that voters present photo identification at the polls.”


What’s the solution?

Along with local efforts to get remote indigenous voters to the polls and make sure they have photo identification that complies with state laws, activists from all over the country are urging Congress to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act.

The legislation “would enact key measures, such as increasing Native access to voter registration sites and polling locations, and authorizing tribal ID cards for voting purposes,” reads a Senate press release about the bill.

“The bill would also bolster Native voter registration, education, and election participation efforts in tribal communities by authorizing a first of its kind Native American Voting Rights Task Force,” it continues. “Finally, the bill addresses the devastating effects of Shelby County v. Holder by prohibiting states from undertaking discriminatory actions without Department of Justice agreement and government-to-government consultation.”

The bill is, of course, sponsored only by Democrats—and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to bring it to the floor for a vote. In fact, McConnell opposes pretty much any proposal to expand voting rights in America.

Such proposals are not limited to Native Americans, because voter suppression does not solely affect Native Americans. Indeed, voter suppression affects nearly all racial minoritie—and racial minorities, including Native Americans, are the most likely groups of people to prioritize climate action at the polls. That’s in part because the climate crisis stands to be disproportionately damaging to their communities.

In a perfect world, climate activists would be able to focus solely on passing legislation to solve the climate crisis. But the world is burning in more ways than one—and climate activists won’t be successful unless they recognize that.

That’s all for this week—thanks for reading HEATED!

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Questions or comments about today’s issue? E-mail me: emily@heated.world

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