Houlton Maliseet want polling station on tribal land

HOULTON, Maine — One of the biggest barriers to voting faced by members of the Houlton Band of Maliseet is easy access to a polling place, according to Tribal Ambassador Osihkiyol (Zeke) Crofton-Macdonald.

But solving this problem will not be easy. In order for the Maliseet to have their own polling place, the Town of Houlton would have to divide its electoral district into two wards from its current ward.

This is because unlike other tribal communities in the state, the Houlton Band of Maliseet was not granted sovereignty under the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 and must follow the laws municipal elections concerning the addition of a polling station.

Maine is the only state in the country that does not recognize tribal autonomy. A bill, LD 1626, would have granted sovereignty to the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, but died in the Maine Senate in May. If the law had been passed, the Houlton Maliseet Indian Band would not need Houlton City Council’s approval to add a polling station to their community gymnasium for band members.

Because they still have to abide by Maine’s election law, the Maliseet and the city are exploring the options.

“I have worked to increase voter turnout in the tribal communities of Maine,” Crofton-Macdonald told members of the Houlton City Council at the last meeting. “The other nations have their own polling place, but the Houlton Band of Maliseet does not. Many of our members do not have adequate transportation…if the polling place was within walking distance, that would be the first step to increasing voter turnout.

The distance is at least four miles and further from some areas.

Elections are administered at the municipal level, and Maine law gives the city a lot of power, including the power to approve the division of electoral districts and the addition of new polling places, according to the Maine secretary of state. , Shenna Bellows.

To add a polling station, council must give public notice and hold a hearing at least 90 days before an election. After the hearing, the city would prepare a certificate defining the boundaries of each electoral district, file it with the city clerk, and then send it to the Secretary of State for approval.

“My goal as secretary of state is to ensure everyone in the state has equal access to the ballot,” Bellows said. “If Houlton decides to split the city into two districts, one of which is on tribal land, we’ll probably approve of that.”

During the meeting, Crofton-Macdonald asked the town to help the band set up a polling station at Maliseet community facilities.

“This method has been successful in other tribal communities, and we hope it will have a similar effect here in Houlton as well,” Crofton-Macdonald said. “Our community gym has undergone upgrades and we have the means to provide all necessary state requirements and are willing to work with the city to improve the location.”

Native American participation in elections is fraught with suspicion, and many members choose not to leave their community and conform to the townspeople, Crofton-Macdonald said in an interview Thursday. Voting in a tribal location, in a comfortable place, would change their sense of participation, he said.

Challenges for Native Americans to vote can include long distances to polling places, lack of transportation, discrimination, and lack of fixed addresses.

And according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute in New York and Washington, D.C., drop boxes and polling stations can be miles from tribal lands and the location of polling places. has a significant impact on voter turnout.

A 2018 survey by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition of Native Americans found that the distance needed to get to the polls affected the decision to vote.

“We’ve seen an increase in restrictive election laws that make it harder to vote,” said Brennan Center fellow Katie Friel, adding that some of the restrictions aren’t intentional, but lawmakers are completely ignoring the needs. “Native Americans living on reservations face unique obstacles.”

Bellows said all voting in Maine is based on geographic location, and if there was a new polling place, everyone within the boundaries of the new district would vote at the Houlton Band of Maliseet community gymnasium.

During the meeting, some councilors expressed concerns about where people would vote, saying residents do not like the change.

“We learn as we go. We’ve never had this request before,” City Manager Marian Anderson said. “We are exploring what that might look like, what is the responsibility of the city.”

Anderson wanted to know how many tribesmen had voted in the last election. “Are we doing this for five people or 100 people?” she said.

Crofton-Macdonald does not currently have that number, but hopes the addition of the tribal land polling location will increase turnout.

“Something needs to be improved, if we could make it happen that would be wonderful,” he said. “It’s still an ongoing discussion, so far the city has been open and ready to listen. At the end of the day, what really matters is that more people vote.

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