Lawmakers discuss how Native American Voting Rights Act is changing election processes

Challenges with PO boxes, staffing and for elderly or disabled people remain, legislators say

By: - October 24, 2023 4:45 am

A Zuni Pueblo polling location in 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

While New Mexicans around the state head to the polls to cast their ballots during early voting in the ongoing local election, lawmakers met in Santa Clara Pueblo last week to talk about how the election is different on tribal land this time around.

The recently passed Native American Voting Rights Act lifted barriers, but challenges still remain, they said.

Rep. Charlotte Little (D-Albuquerque) is the Indigenous Center Administrator for Naeva, a Native rights advocacy organization. She went over tribal elections processes to her colleagues on the legislative Indian Affairs Committee on Friday.

Specifically, she voiced changes from the 2023 Voting Right Act that affect tribal voters, like provisions that add more ballot drop boxes or designate a government or official building where people without traditional mailing address can still receive mail ballots or register to vote.

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Sen. Nancy Rodriguez (D-Santa Fe) said allowing people to list official buildings as addresses can help solve errors that have happened in the past, like ballots getting lost for people who have non-traditional addresses. She also pointed out that this is optional for tribal buildings.

“It leaves it to the tribe to make that decision,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t try to infiltrate our provisions in there that would impact the tribe without the tribe having their full input or their own decisions for their sovereignty.”

When Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland) asked if his family can’t use personal post office boxes to get their ballot now, Little said PO boxes aren’t used at all to mail or receive ballots. She referred to when people without a street address had to indicate where they live by drawing a map on the back of a registration form.

Committee vice chair Sen. Shannon Pinto (D-Tohatchi) said she has seen firsthand the complications of PO boxes on tribal land, with local post offices not having enough PO boxes or too many people assigned to one box.

“Is getting your mail a right for every citizen? Because that’s how our government conducts business — through the mail,” she said. If you don’t have internet access, she said, stuff gets sent through the mail.

“And yet we have people that don’t have the capability or the ability to have those boxes, pay those fees and just have that simple way to have access,” she said.

Pinto also brought up challenges elderly people have when voting. She recounted her own experience seeing people who use wheelchairs or walkers walking long distances in the cold at a polling place that restricted handicap parking. She moved to the back of the line so they could take her place in the front, she said.

Pinto said maybe there’s a way to give preference to the elderly or move them ahead of people in line who aren’t as vulnerable.

Rodriguez said lawmakers need to look at these types of issues. She said the American Disabilities Act should be at the forefront of the state’s Voting Rights Act, including for people who have limited mobility like the elderly.

“I’ve seen actually elderly people holding onto a fence because they need to stay up as they’re waiting in line,” she said. “That’s not not acceptable. We need to help those that have such great needs like that.”

Questions about finances and staffing

Also part of the Voting Rights Act is a requirement for the Secretary of State’s Office to pay or reimburse for any costs local county clerk’s incur in complying with the law, Little said.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom (D-Gallup) said local governments in rural areas are the ones that don’t have the funds to cover substantial election expenses.

“Where I think we’re missing voting is in the most remote areas, where they have the least amount of staff support, the worst travel conditions, in terms of road conditions, that kind of stuff,” she said.

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She said she’s curious about how much that’ll cost and suspects that money will have to be done through the general appropriations act.

The three-year total cost of the Voting Rights Act is $717,000, according to the fiscal impact report. It doesn’t pull from a general appropriation, Rep. John Block (R-Alamogordo) pointed out, but rather more specific funding pots. He asked Little to follow up with the Secretary of State’s Office on that.

Lundstrom, who represents areas in northwestern New Mexico heavily populated by Native communities, also asked if chapter houses count as an official building that people can list their address under.

When Little said yes, Lundstrom said there’s a high turnover rate with chapter house coordinators and questioned what happens if the person responsible for managing the new election process leaves.

“That’s a heavy responsibility for somebody to have in addition to the other duties that they may have in those chapters,” Lundstrom said. “They got a lot of stuff going on.”

Little said she made note of the question and will forward it to the Secretary of State’s Office. She added that when a tribe signs a building up to be a viable ballot mailing address location, “they might have to review prior that they’ve got the personnel available” for the responsibility.

Lundstom also asked if local chapters can opt out of being official address designations, especially at times when they aren’t getting along with the current administration in charge.

Little again said she made a note of the question.

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.