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Native Americans' difficulty with early voting in Fremont County causes alarm for Democrats

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Voting

A Casper voter holds up his “I voted” sticker after casting a ballot in Wyoming's 2016 general election. 

A Democratic organizer from the Wind River Reservation said she and other activists faced difficulties in their efforts to vote early in Fremont County, prompting allegations of voter suppression seen on reservations in other areas of the country.

In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Lynnette Grey Bull — a Democratic activist behind a large “Get Out The Vote” effort among the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes on the reservation — said she and other GOTV activists were told by an employee at the Lander county clerk’s office they needed a valid state-licensed driver’s license to register and vote early, which, according to state and federal election law, is the preferred means of voter registration.

However, this was only partly true: While 2003’s Help America Vote Act requires states to have a voter registration system that verifies a person with the state department of transportation, the department of health and the department of criminal investigation, there is a provision that allows voters to provide the last 4 digits of their social security number and another form of government-issued photo ID in lieu of a driver’s license.

While Grey Bull said she told the employee this, it was only after placing a call to the chairman of the Fremont County Democratic Party, Bruce Palmer, that she was successfully able to get the group registered.

“She then came back, nice as can be, overly nice and registered us all without a problem!” she wrote. “It hurt me to the core, to see my Native team of canvassers to be treated and disregarded in such a racist manner and the demeaning tone to which she displayed. The continued suppression of the #NativeVote and overall oppression of Native Americans is appalling. It took a white guy, to advocate for us, in order to be treated like U.S. Citizens!”

While the group was, eventually, allowed to vote, the state Democratic Party on Wednesday issued a statement on the incident, adding the party planned to increase their digital outreach in order to educate voters regarding their rights and to post poll watchers at voting locations.

“We’re taking this incident very seriously,” Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman Joe M. Barbuto said. “These folks believe they were treated rudely because they are Native Americans, and that is unacceptable. This is what discourages other tribal members from voting.”

Though the clerk’s office, in a press release issued Monday, clarified the state’s election law with guidelines on how to vote, the optics of the confusion — particularly when accusations of suppressing the Native American vote in North Dakota have gone national — have led Grey Bull to speculate there is an effort to suppress the vote there.

“Being so scrutinized here, how can you not say it’s voter suppression or racist behavior toward Native Americans?” she said in an interview Wednesday.

“I definitely felt like this was racism and discrimination,” she added. “I talked to friends who are white in Fremont County who have voted all their life and have [been] told they’ve never been asked for their I.D. to vote.”

Voter registration in Wyoming

In recent days, both the Fremont County Clerk and the Secretary of State’s office released statements reiterating state election law, clarifying in clear terms what it takes to cast a vote.

Wyoming election law, with its same-day registration provisions, allows Wyoming residents to register and vote on Election Day if they provide a valid Wyoming driver’s license. If they don’t have the physical license, they must provide their driver’s license number as well as another acceptable form of identification.

If a prospective voter has not been issued a Wyoming driver’s license, according to the Secretary of State’s office, they must provide the last four digits of their social security number and another form of acceptable identification. If a person has not been issued a Wyoming driver’s license or a social security number, they may still vote if they have another form of acceptable identification.

“The law on how a voter registers to vote is clear,” Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said in a press release on Tuesday. “There are multiple ways in which a voter can register if they do not have a valid Wyoming driver’s license. If a voter forgets their Wyoming driver’s license or if they don’t know their driver’s license number on Election Day, they can still cast a provisional ballot. A voter will then have the responsibility of providing the necessary documentation to their county clerk by the close of business on the following day.”

Even Palmer, the Fremont County Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview Wednesday he wasn’t aware of the specifics of the law, adding he was always under the impression that a driver’s license was merely the preferred means of identification and that other forms of I.D. — including a tribal identification card — would be sufficient to register to vote.

However, he said, the incident gives him cause to think there is a liability that the laws are applied differently from county to county, which Grey Bull said could have significant impacts on elections in a county where one in five residents are Native Americans. On Wednesday, Palmer told the Star-Tribune that a colleague in Albany County had been regularly registering University of Wyoming students in Laramie with no problems, many of them using a student I.D. and their social security numbers to register.

“It feels like there’s been a shift in terms of the requirements,” he said.

Continuing conversations

The event did, however, add to a continuing dialogue between residents on the Wind River Reservation and the county clerk’s office. The local Democratic Party has held numerous “Rev Up The Rez Vote” events in Fort Washakie and Ethete (often attended by Freese). And, throughout this election cycle, Palmer said the concerns of voters on the reservation have had the ear of the clerk’s office as they’ve advocated for ways to increase voter engagement there.

“We have been able to meet with folks, and that’s been positive,” Palmer said. “There have been conversations around how registrations have been done and this incident, specifically.”

In an interview Wednesday, Freese said she had spoken with Palmer and that Monday’s incident was more an example of a miscommunication of the law, rather than discrimination or racism. She emphasized that those who came to the clerk’s office were allowed to vote and that, in the future, anyone experiencing problems should reach out to her directly to resolve them.

“I stand behind my staff,” said Freese. “We’re impartial, and we treat everybody equally. I stand behind what we do, and we don’t feel anyone was disenfranchised. Everybody got to vote.”

“I’m very attentive to people’s issues,” she added. “And if they have problems, I hope they get in touch with me.”

Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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