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Follow Wyoming Public Radio as we cover the Equality State and U.S. elections online and on-air.

Race For District 33 Brings Up Native Voting Issues

Photo: Julie Falk per https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Wyoming House District 33 is mostly in Fremont County and includes Lander and the Wind River Reservation. This year the seat is heavily contested between an incumbent, who is a chair of a legislative committee, and a popular Northern Arapaho woman who's a former Fremont County Commissioner. But Northern Arapaho Tribal member Andi Clifford said she would like to represent both tribes in Cheyenne as a Democrat.

"The majority of my district is tribal people, and I want to empower my tribal people that they do have a voice that their voice counts, and if they want change, I need them to get to the polls," said Clifford.

District 33 is 65 percent Native American according to the latest census, but many don't vote. Clifford suspects many of her constituents would be emboldened to come to the polls by seeing a fellow Native American on the ticket.

Republican Representative Jim Allen is a non-Native but also grew up on the Wind River Reservation and is endorsed by the National Rifle Association, among other groups. He was elected in 2016 and chairs the House Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Committee. He argues that he represents the district well.

"I went to school with tribal members," said Allen. "They are my friends so I don't even think when I look at someone I don't think Indian or white or Arapaho or Shoshone that's just not how I function."

And in fact, Allen was a sponsor of the Indian Education for All Act which is attempting to educate the entire state about Native Americans and specifically the Wind River Reservation.

But Clifford said that having an actual Native American representing the tribes is important and she said that the feedback she's getting from tribal leaders backs up that assertion.

"My campaign is getting guidance and honoring our elders," said Clifford, "and I think that's been real positive, that I have not forgotten about our elders, the wisdom keepers of our traditional knowledge and culture and ways of knowing."

But Clifford faces some challenges. One is that Native people often don't vote, sometimes it's due to apathy but there are problems as well.

According to Harvard Law Review, there exist barriers for Native voters that don't exist for non-Native people such as geographical location and language. This election has also experienced widespread confusion about whether Tribal ID's can be used. Especially since the Northern Arapaho provided 430 tribal ID's free of charge to help tribal members get out and vote.

Julie Freese the Fremont County Clerk said she needs a Wyoming driver's license before she can give someone a ballot.

"That is the rule," said Freese. "If you really don't have a valid Wyoming Driver's License you need to give us the last 4 digits of your social security number and then you may use another form of government photo ID."

There are also limited places to vote which leads to long lines already and with the confusion over the ID's, Clifford and others worry that will discourage tribal members from voting.

Bruce Palmer has long been active in Wyoming Democratic Party and while he has a vested interest in the race, he also thinks it's a matter of fairness.

"I live in Lander," said Palmer. "I walk in it take 5 minutes to vote. Everyone should have that same kind of experience."

Freese, the County Clerk, is sympathetic to the concerns that have been raised and plans to beef up the reservation polling places with more staff.

As for the race itself, Allen said he's a much better choice because Republicans are the majority party.

"Not all of them but a lot of them are Democrat and so, if they are down there, they are not in a position of leverage because they are not in the majority party. Right now the Republicans hold 85 percent of the seats in the Wyoming Legislature and so they are in the majority. I can get more done than someone from the minority party."

Clifford recently told a group that she will bring an important viewpoint to the legislature.

"We are grounded in respect," said Clifford. "Treating everybody all equal. Respecting Mother Earth. Our water, our land, and our air. Hohou. Thank you."

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