Post office closings threaten Native voting rights

Published by Indian Country Today in 2011. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Indian reservation post offices are on the list of 3,600-plus branches the U.S. Postal Service wants to eliminate in order to help fix the agency’s multi-billion-dollar annual deficits. One office on the list is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Nation in Arizona, two more branches are on the Coeur D’Alene’s Idaho reservation, and three are in Standing Rock Sioux Tribe communities in South Dakota; these and numerous additional reservation branches nationwide may close their doors.

And that may close the door on the voting rights of tribal members who depend on them, says O.J. Semans, Sicangu Lakota, head of voting-rights group Four Directions. “Getting rid of post offices in Indian country would have a dramatic effect on access to voting,” he says. “In Nevada, for instance, about half of the 27 tribes rely heavily on the post office to register and to vote. Here in South Dakota, the state has Native American Indians to rely on the mail for voting. The 2010 national election was a good example of this, in that the state pushed for reservation voters to use mail-in absentee ballots—which required them to go to the post office three times: to request, receive and return the ballot.”

Wounded Knee residents checking their mail.

Four Directions’ legal director Greg Lembrich, senior associate at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, recalls that at the National Congress of American Indians’ Native Vote Core Working Group meeting in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, several tribal representatives spoke of the success certain tribes and community groups had achieved with vote-by-mail efforts. “They’ve had a tremendous impact on raising voter turnout on several reservations,” says Lembrich. He calls the post office “crucial” to registration and voting by Native Americans, who may not have home delivery, so need that local branch in place in order to use the mail. 

The USPS doesn’t know how many of the targeted branches are on reservations, according to spokesperson Pete Nowacki, but a look at the list indicates that in Arizona, 5 of the 11 closings appear to be on reservations, including the homelands of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and White Mountain Apache Tribe, while some 10 of 80 South Dakota closings are. Critics of the USPS plans, including Senator Tim Johnson (D.-South Dakota), have noted that shutting every single one of the 3,600-plus offices on the list would save just seven-tenths of one percent of the agency’s annual operating budget.

Native voters facing the loss of their local branch can’t rely on the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect their access to voting via mail—and by extension, their post office—according to Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. VRA’s prohibitions against actions limiting enfranchisement are directed at states and other local jurisdictions, but not at the federal government or its agencies, he says.

Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, points out that the USPS isn’t closing branches with the express purpose of affecting voting. However, the idea is part of what she calls “a systemic whole,” along with other new barriers to the ballot box, such as additional identification requirements and obstacles to registration. “Across the country, I see the impact of the new voting laws falling on underserved communities, not on suburban America,” MacNamara says. “Those living in suburban America, who have so many conveniences and aren’t reliant on the post office for voting, have a duty think of others with less privileges and access.”

In Congressional testimony earlier this year, the chairperson of the Postal Regulatory Commission, Ruth Y. Goldway, expressed similar concerns: “A sizeable part of the U.S. population depends on the mail to manage their lives and stay connected with their government,” she said. She pointed to a Commerce Department study showing that in 2009, 31 percent of American households didn’t have Internet access. “Statistically, they are disproportionately poor, less educated and underemployed. But in a universal mail service network, they are served. They are connected.”

Our rush to save money nowadays can cause unforeseen problems, MacNamara says: “In these trying times, when we’re cutting budgets, we must be aware of unintended consequences. The U.S. Postal Service was thinking of its budget when it compiled the list of potential closings, but the agency, the public and elected officials need to be aware of additional impacts, such as those on voting.”

What’s a community about to lose its local branch to do? “People need to tell their elected officials to give very serious consideration to the effect that the closings will have on minority communities,” says McDonald.

Semans agrees: “I’d suggest that tribes contact their congressional delegations, explaining the effect the loss of a post office would have on many essentials, but certainly on the ability to vote. That way, their representatives can consider these issues as they chose between the several bills now working their way through the House and Senate.”

To see if your branch may close and learn about ways to protect it, please read the post, “Wounded Knee Post Office Under Siege.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy of Jane Ridgway.

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