Minnesota finally adds early voting for Indian reservations, but other states struggle

A Leech Lake member tending rice
A Leech Lake member tending rice

If you're a member of the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, voting early in an election isn't easy. The closest voting booth is 35 miles away, in Bemidji. You've got to have a car, which can be scarce. You've got to drive those miles, park, head back. Costs can add up quick, just to submit a ballot.

"That's about 35, 36, probably 40 dollars. That's a 40 dollar fee," says Bret Healy, a consultant with the Native American voting rights group Four Directions. "That's also assuming you've got access to a reliable automobile." .

See also: Susan Allen is the first Native American woman elected to Minnesota legislature

For years, this has been life for members of many reservations in Northwest Minnesota. If you wanted to vote on your own time, it would cost time and serious money. It's a problem that's rarely talked about, but it's a large enough hurdle that it's led to many Native Americans simply not voting.

In Minnesota, though, the obstacle's finally been lifted. Over the past few weeks, Minnesota's Native American reservations have worked with the state and surrounding counties to bring satellite early voting booths directly into reservations throughout the northwest corner of the state. The long drives are over.

The effort was largely headed up by Erma Vizenor, the chairwoman of the White Earth Nation Indian Reservation. Through a few conversations with county and state officials, White Earth reservation, along with the Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations, convinced the government that giving Native Americans those early voting rights was worth a few dollars, at least for this election.

"All of this really happened within the past three weeks," says Healy, who worked on the negotiations. "And I gotta say, folks moved very, very quickly."

The fight hasn't been easy. Though the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965 to make it easier for minorities to vote, the barriers for Native Americans have barely budged. It took Minnesota until 2005 to make Tribal IDs a valid form of voter identification. It took until 2012 for a Native American to be elected to the state legislature.

In other states, things are still just as difficult as ever. Despite working for over a decade to bring in satellite voting booths into reservations in South Dakota and Montana, only a few counties have made the change. The reason, activists say, is prejudice -- that some counties simply don't see giving early voting rights to these tribes as being worth the money or logistics.

"There's a lack of understanding of equality," says Oliver Semans, the executive director of Four Directions.

Soon, though, those counties may no longer have a choice. The U.S. Department of Justice is holding a meeting this week looking at changing federal laws to give every tribe its own polling place. If that happens, Minnesota won't be the exception any longer.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.

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