Colorado Will Be the First State To Expand Automatic Voter Registration To Tribes

The entrance of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe council chambers

Colorado is poised to be the first state to to expand automatic voter registration to Native American reservations, thanks to a new registration system.

Tribal members have the right to vote in elections, from the local to the national level, just like other U.S. citizens. But actually casting a ballot has been an uphill battle for many tribal residents, including those here in Colorado. Even after obtaining official U.S. citizenship a century ago, Native Americans’ ability to vote has been consistently ignored or actively undermined. In recent decades, unequal access to in-person voting, early voting and election funding on tribal lands has been a particular issue.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart said gaining U.S. citizenship in 1924 was only one step in a continuous slog toward equal rights for tribes.

“Since then, it has been moving very slow for Native American tribes across this country,” Heart said. “There was always this conflict with the United States government, whoever was sitting in there. But now, things are changing."

Working with Colorado tribes, state lawmakers passed a set of election reforms earlier this year to expand voting access for Native Americans. Those reforms include the nation’s first automatic voter registration program of its kind for Native Americans. The program will cover both of the federally-recognized Native American reservations in the state—the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and will allow the tribes’ governments to submit lists of members to be registered through the Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office.

Griswold said the new registration system could make a big difference for Colorado's tribal communities.

"Seeing registration rates and turnout rates being much, much lower on tribal lands is a big problem that we want to solve,” Griswold said. “I personally believe automatic voter registration is one of the best ways to register voters in the state of Colorado, and all of our data shows how highly effective it is.”

Colorado is one of more than two dozen states that have automatic voter registration systems, but Colorado is the only state so far to extend its system to cover Native American reservations. When Colorado rolled out its system for the first time in 2020, about 250,000 people were added to the state’s voter rolls within the first year.

Now, Griswold hopes the new registration program will have a similar effect on tribal lands in the state. She  wants to see the program in place in time for the 2024 election. For now, tribal leadership is reviewing the plan and providing feedback on it.

Four tribal leaders stand together, smiling, in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe council chambers
Chairman Manuel Heart (center left) and other members of Ute Mountain Ute leadership meet with Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (center right) on Friday, December 1, 2023 to discuss details of a new first-in-the-nation automatic voter registration system for tribal members. Photo by Chris Clements/KSJD

“It will not take us much time to register people once we start receiving data,” Griswold told KUNC. “But I think there's a couple of logistics to still work through.”

Measures to keep tribal members' information confidential were added recently at the request of the Southern Ute tribe, and lawmakers have also increased the number of on-reservation vote centers available for early voting and on Election Day.

This year’s election reforms also build on a slew of changes in recent years. For example, in 2019 Colorado lawmakers guaranteed in-person voting centers on tribal lands and loosened address requirements for voters.

“These communities, unfortunately, have structural issues and other issues that just make it difficult to vote,” Jacqueline De León, attorney with the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund, said.

Tribal communities in Colorado share some of the same registration and voting barriers as other rural communities across the U.S., like geographic isolation and unreliable mail delivery. But according to the Native American Rights Fund, tribal communities also commonly experience obstacles like language barriers, a lack of voter registration opportunities, and state laws in some parts of the country that block polling places on tribal lands.

“Either through racial animus or through neglect, or just really not seeing Native Americans as their constituents, we've seen a lot of resistance towards providing basic services to Native Americans on reservations,” De León said. “Native Americans are getting less services and facing these structural barriers. The combination of both of those things just makes it especially difficult for Native Americans to vote.”

Back in Southwest Colorado, Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart is hopeful the new automatic voter registration system will counteract some of those challenges. He also said there’s more work to do to make elections truly equitable for Native Americans—and it starts with education.

“It’s important to educate tribal members across the board, especially young ones, about the process of legislation and getting out there and voting,” Heart said.

During a meeting last week with Secretary of State Griswold to hammer out the details of the new registration system, Heart said he wants his people to have every opportunity to get out and vote, especially ahead of next year’s presidential election.

"Every vote counts, in every election," Heart said. "Nationally, we're coming up on the presidential election, and to have our tribal members get out there to vote—that's what it's about. That's your voice. That's your action you're taking for the future."

This article was originally published by KSJD's Chris Clements contributed reporting to this story. KUNC and KSJD are members of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

Header image courtesy of Christ Clements/KSJD

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December 15, 2023 1:48 PM
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