Voters cast their ballots in Houlton in 2021. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

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

But solving that problem won’t be easy. In order for the Maliseets to have their own polling place, the town of Houlton would have to divide its voting district into two wards from its current one.

That’s because, unlike other tribal communities in the state, the Houlton Band of Maliseets did not get sovereignty as part of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and must follow municipal election laws regarding the addition of a polling place.

Maine is the only state in the nation that does not recognize tribal self-government. A bill, LD 1626, would have given sovereignty to the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, but it died on the Maine Senate floor in May. Had the legislation passed, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians would not need Houlton Town Council approval to add a polling place to their community gym for Band members.

Because they must still follow Maine election law, the Maliseets and the town are exploring options.

“I have been working to increase voter turnout in tribal communities across Maine,” Crofton-Macdonald told members of the Houlton Town Council during the most recent meeting. “The other nations have their own polling place, but the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians does not. Many of our members lack adequate transportation … if the polling place were in walking distance, it would be the first step in increasing voter turnout.”

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

Elections are administered at the municipal level, and Maine law gives a lot of power to the town, including the power to approve the division of voting districts and adding new polling locations, according to Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows.

To add a polling place, the town council has to give public notice and hold a hearing at least 90 days before an election. After the hearing, the town would prepare a certificate defining the limits of each voting district, file it with the town clerk and then send it to the secretary of state for approval.  

“My goal as secretary of state is to make sure everyone in the state has equal access to the ballot,” Bellows said. “If Houlton decides to divide the town into two districts, with one located on tribal land, we would likely approve it.”

During the meeting, Crofton-Macdonald asked the town to help the band create a polling place in the Maliseets’ community facilities.

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

Native American participation in elections is fraught with distrust, and many members choose not to leave their community and stand in line, Crofton-Macdonald said in an interview on Thursday. Voting in a tribal location, in a comfortable place, would change their feelings about participating, he said.

Challenges for Native Americans to vote can include long distances to polling locations, 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 election offices can be miles from tribal land and the location of polling places has a significant impact on voter participation.

A 2018 Native American Voting Rights Coalition  survey of Native Americans reported that the distance needed to travel to the polls affected decisions to cast a ballot. 

“We have seen a surge in restrictive voting laws which make voting more difficult,” said Katie Friel, a Brennan Center fellow, adding that some of the restrictions are not intentional, but that lawmakers often don’t consider their needs. “Native Americans living on reservations face unique obstacles.”

Bellows said that 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 Indians community gym.

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

“We are learning as we go. We have never had this request before,” said Town Manager Marian Anderson. “We are exploring what it might look like, what is the town’s responsibility.”

Anderson wanted to know how many members of the tribe 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 that adding the polling location on tribal land will increase participation.

“Something needs to be improved, if we could make that happen then it would be wonderful,” he said. “This is still an ongoing discussion, so far, the town has been open and willing to listen. In the end what really matters is that more people vote.”