Native American voting rights bill becomes law

March 18, 2019

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday signed into law legislation designed to improve Native Americans’ access to voting.

Senate Bill 5079, sponsored by Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, makes voting and voter registration more convenient for tribal members.

First-term state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Samish Island, sponsored the companion bill in the House. She said she worked closely with McCoy to bring the bills to a vote in both chambers.

“Senator McCoy started building that bridge, and I came in and helped him finish it,” she said.

Under the new law, those living on reservations will be allowed to use nontraditional addresses to register to vote, such as tribal government buildings.

Lekanoff said on larger reservations, such as those of the Colville and Yakama tribes, there are residents who live in homes without traditional numbered addresses.

In her work as director of government affairs for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Lekanoff said she encountered many tribal members who never voted because they’d never been taught how to register.

“They felt as if this nation had forgotten them,” she said.

By eliminating barriers to voting, Lekanoff said the Legislature is showing tribal members — and specifically youth — that their votes are just as important as those who don’t live on reservations.

“We’re teaching the next generation that their voice matters,” she said.

Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, said native people and other people of color face roadblocks that keep them from participating in a democracy.

He said barriers in Washington may not be as high as they are in other states, and this law shows the Legislature is committed to maintaining that.

“This shows that Washington state really cares about the native vote,” Cladoosby said. “I’m very proud of Deb and the work she did with Senator McCoy.”

Once the law is implemented, counties will be required to install ballot drop boxes on reservations in their boundaries if the tribes request them, in a place of each tribe’s choosing.

David Cunningham, Skagit County elections supervisor, said he doesn’t foresee much difficulty in complying with the new law at the county level, but it depends on which tribes ask for ballot drop boxes.

“We’re already doing this with the Swinomish,” he said.

The Swinomish requested and received a drop box several years ago, but the other three tribes in the county have not made this request, he said.

If they do, he said his office might need more staff on election nights to help retrieve ballots.

The law also lets those who live on reservations use tribal identification cards rather than state IDs for the purpose of voter registration.

Cladoosby said it’s common for Swinomish tribal members to have only a tribal ID.

The law gives tribal governments, individuals and the state Office of the Attorney General authority to sue counties that don’t comply with requirements to install or collect ballots from tribal drop boxes.