As a lawyer working on Native American voting rights, Samantha Kelty sees myriad barriers the population faces when trying to vote: polling locations with limited hours of operation, the distance to polls, and the challenge of unpaved roads and circumventing natural barriers such as the Grand Canyon.
The Blackfeet Reservation, for instance, votes within Andre County, which decided to keep its in-person polling location in the county seat: “The county is over 90% white,” Kelty says, “and would not give an in-person polling location to the Blackfeet Tribe. Like reservations across Montana, the Blackfeet Tribe doesn’t have residential mail delivery, and so they were going to have to travel 120 miles round trip.
The Native American Rights Fund, which has provided legal support since the 1970s, tried to litigate and negotiate for polling access, but officials refused, according to Kelty: “So we sued them and within three days, they agreed to provide a polling location on the reservation.”
On top of those barriers, the costs of a trip like that can be prohibitive.
“Native Americans have the highest poverty rate of any minority group in the United States,” Kelty says, describing the challenges of prioritizing voting, “so at the end of the day, a lot of our tribal members have to choose between a tank of gas or food for their home.”
Unlike the majority of communities, the move to vote-by-mail during the pandemic actually hindered many Native American residents’ ability to cast their ballots, says Kelty, nothing that “homes on reservations oftentimes don’t have addresses, don’t have regular mail delivery.”
But despite all of these hurdles, Kelty has hope.
“Just seeing the turnout in the last election and Native communities far surpassing everyone’s expectations, it was heartwarming,” she says. “They want to vote, they want to participate, and they want to be a part of this democracy, and it shouldn’t be this hard.”