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‘Knock the rough edges off’: Lawmaker seeks study of Native American voting rights

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‘Knock the rough edges off’: Lawmaker seeks study of Native American voting rights

Mar 02, 2024 | 5:30 am ET
By Zach Wendling
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‘Knock the rough edges off’: Lawmaker seeks study of Native American voting rights
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Signage at an early voting center on Sept. 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs could consult with an expert for a dedicated review of Native American voting rights under a legislative proposal considered this week.

Legislative Bill 1262, introduced by State Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, would have the commission contract with a consultant with expertise in tribal issues to study and determine any barriers to voting and equal representation for Indian tribes in Nebraska. Day is chair of the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee.

Day said her bill would build off a federal steering group’s recommendations for such barriers, commissioned through a White House executive order, but “make it relevant for Nebraska.”

“Because Native voters are profoundly diverse, we thought it best that we explore this within our own state,” Day told the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

A first report of recommendations would be due Dec. 1, 2025.

Recent fight in Thurston County

Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said Day’s bill would be good for the state’s first peoples.

Earlier this year, two Nebraska tribes successfully negotiated a new, court-approved redistricting plan for the Thurston County Board of Supervisors. According to the lawsuit, one of three successful actions against the county over redistricting, the maps intentionally diluted Native voices.

The new redistricting plan conforms with the federal Voting Rights Act, providing Native voters a fair opportunity in four of the seven board districts to elect their preferred candidates.

Multiple ZIP codes in Thurston County have the lowest turnout in the state, according to Arlo Hettle of the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table. This is “pretty shameful,” gaiashkibos said, and the study could find ways to eliminate barriers.

Several possible voting impediments exist, Day added, including geographic isolation, technology concerns, nontraditional mailing addresses and a lack of resources or funds.

Voting ‘core’ of being an American

Eugene DeCora Sr, a member of the Winnebago Tribal Council, said since his 2023 election, he has “enthusiastically” joined tribes’ efforts to ensure their voices are heard at all levels.

In spite of this, DeCora said, there have been deliberate efforts to silence voters.

“No American should need to litigate their voting rights,” DeCora testified. “I ask that this bill be passed because voting, having a voice in government, is at the core of what it means to be an American.”

‘Knock the rough edges off’

State Sen. Tom Brewer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who represents north-central Nebraska, said the bill is “pretty straightforward” and confirmed with Day the goal is to figure out how to “knock the rough edges off” voting.

A couple of opponents to the bill said the members of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs could do the work themselves, but Brewer pushed back, saying each tribe has its own circumstances.

In an interview, Brewer added that reservations stand out as “islands” from other parts of the state, sometimes left behind technologically or procedurally. 

“I think in a way they’ve been left behind with some of our voting rights changes,” Brewer said. “This gives us an opportunity to get them on even par with everyone else so that we don’t disenfranchise anyone.”

The ACLU of Nebraska, Civic Nebraska, Nebraska State Education Association and Disability Rights Nebraska also supported LB 1262 at its hearing.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.