Jefferson Keel: ‘Voting Is One of Our Greatest Sovereign Rights’

The president of the National Congress of American Indians opened the organization’s 69th Annual Convention and Marketplace with an urgent message to Native America to get out and vote.

President Jefferson Keel’s speech coincided with the release of a new report from NCAI’s Native Vote project that shows voter ID laws under consideration or already in place in six states could have a negative impact on Native voter participation in this year’s elections on November 6 and for years to come. “We are America’s first people and yet we were the last to secure our right to vote,” Keel said. “And our ancestors, some of our founding members, our mothers and fathers, stood against great resistance and scrutiny to reserve that right for all Native people. Voting is one of our greatest sovereign rights.”

NCAI, founded in 1944, is the oldest and largest organization in the country that represents American Indians and Alaska Natives. Around 3,000 people from all over the continent are attending this year’s convention, which is being held in Sacramento, California from October 22-26.

The new report called “Voter ID Laws & The Native Vote: States of Concern,” warns that Native voters in a number of states are faced with significant barriers to exercising their right to vote. “Despite many important victories and decades of advocacy for Native voters rights, tribal communities still face discrimination and challenges when it comes to exercising their right to vote. The most recent of these challenge are voter ID laws, which threaten the voting rights of many Native people across Indian country,” the report says.

The Native Vote study identified 18 states as focus states for protecting Native voter rights and increasing voter engagement. Eleven of the 18 states have already passed voter ID laws that could disproportionately affect Native voters – Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin. Three of these states – Florida, Michigan and South Dakota – will require voters to present a photo ID in November. Seven of the remaining eight states will also required voters to show identification, but not a photo. Wisconsin passed a strict voter ID law that requires a photo but won’t be able to enforce it because a state court declared the law unconstitutional. The report identifies three major barriers these laws present to Native voters: States with voter ID laws compromise the rights of Native voters by not accepting tribal IDs as valid forms of identification; these laws create burdens of cost, logistics and distance for Native voters in obtaining the required voter IDs; and these laws risk disenfranchising large numbers of Native voters through provisional ballots.

“We will not be deterred – Indian country is focused on turning out the largest Native vote in history this year – and this report helps us focus our protection and education efforts. Voter ID and photo ID laws are a major concern and we are working to make sure Native voters have the information they need to make their voice heard,” Keel said.

The Native Vote effort began in 2008 and has continued. The effort ramped up in the middle of this year when Keel characterized Native voter engagement and voter access as nearing a “civic emergency” at NCAI’s mid-year conference after studies revealed a gap of nearly one million unregistered eligible Native voters. Native Vote launched a media campaign to spread the word of the need to get people engaged and registered, including a Native Vote Action Week in September that hosted over 140 events and reached nearly 35,000 people across the country, Keel said. Native Vote will hold a major rally in Wisconsin on October 30 and other events are planned all over Indian country. The next few weeks are critical for getting out the Native vote, Keel said, and “it doesn’t matter who you vote for … I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of 2012. D stands for Democrat. R stands for Republican. But I – I stands for Indian. We support and vote for those who understand our issues and are willing to uphold the federal trust responsibility and honor our unique place in the American family of governments.”

The report details actions that tribal nations and individuals can take to ensure and protect the maximum Native participation in the elections. These include actively educating and updating tribal communities on developments in voter ID laws in their states; encouraging and helping voters, especially the elderly, those who are socially and physically isolated, and those from low income households to get the identification they need to vote and organize car pools to get them to the polls; advocate for tribal IDs as acceptable forms of identification; enhance tribal IDs to meet international travel standards; and encourage tribal citizens to serve as poll watchers and election observers to make sure that Native voters’ right to use tribal IDs is protected.

The study and more information is available at


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Jefferson Keel: ‘Voting Is One of Our Greatest Sovereign Rights’