HELENA – Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh said Thursday they are supporting a bill to better protect voting rights across Indian country.
The two Democrats are cosponsoring a bill by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, which seeks to “safeguard the voting rights of Native Americans and Alaska Native voters and to provide the resources and oversight necessary to ensure equal access to the electoral process.”
“I think what it does is it’s going to provide some access for tribal folks to vote,” Tester said in a telephone interview. “There’s been an attack on the right to vote.”
Many Native Americans live in isolated rural areas, making it difficult for them to travel long distances to vote.
“Polling places have been eliminated, moved or consolidated,” Tester said. “Quite frankly, in Montana, these are rural areas, and it ought not to be happening.”
Tester said the bill would:
– Prevent the closure of polling locations on Indian reservations.
– Require states for the first time to accept tribal ID cards as a form of identification at polling places.
– Clarify that jurisdictions have a duty to translate ballots from English to native languages.
The major change sought, Tester said, is the one stopping the closure of polling locations on Indian reservations. He said there have been efforts to restrict the ability of people to vote.
“Dating back to my first days in the state Legislature, both parties were working hard to make sure everyone had the opportunity to vote,” Tester said. “Now it seems there is an effort to try and restrict. This hopefully takes it in the other direction.”
It also gives tribal leaders authority to request additional election oversight and provides for public access to election reports.
“Exercising one’s right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights in this country, and it’s high time that we make sure our tribal nationals have equal access to exercising this right,” Walsh said. “This bill is an important response to the Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision to strike down some of the most important protections of the Voting Rights Act.”