1. Update
  2. Native Americans, Voting & Elections

The Quest for Equal Voting Rights

June 5, 2015

Native Americans can face great obstacles in the United States when it comes to registering to vote, accessing polling places and actually casting their votes.

It is particularly difficult for Native Americans living on vast reservations in the Northwestern and Southwestern United States where places to register to vote can be a 100 mile round trip, around a two-hour drive – assuming of course one has access to a car, money to pay for gas and time to take off work.

Challenges faced vary state by state. If a Voter ID law is in place, Native Americans tend to be disproportionately affected, because a greater number of Native Americans might live far away from places that issue state IDs, may not drive cars to need a Driver’s license and the laws may not recognize tribal IDs as valid identification. Some states offer same-day or mail-in voter registration, but in states that do not first-time voters must make the trek to a registration office at least a month ahead of the election. Other states have satellite offices that allow voters up to 5 weeks to vote ahead of time, but may not locate these offices on or near any reservations.

A more recent development is that the Supreme Court ruled that section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was unconstitutional, a devastating blow to those working towards ensuring equal access. Section 4 required that changes in voting procedures and election laws needed federal pre-clearance in order ensure that the changes would not impede protected groups in voting. Historically this ensured that states with a history of discriminatory voting laws would be subject to federal oversight, and Congress even clarified in 1975 that Native Americans and Alaska Natives were categorized as protected groups. But in 2013, five Supreme Court Justices agreed; Section 4 was circumstantial for 1965, and is no longer necessary or constitutional in current conditions.

Section 2 of the VRA is the clause that protects racial minorities and protected groups (including Native Americans) from exclusionary voting procedures. Without the preclearance measure however, states are able to make changes without prior federal checks on compliance with section 2, at great burden to the voters potentially affected. Certain states such as South Dakota, Montana and Arizona have a history of putting Native Americans at a disadvantage for participating in elections and over the past decade there have been a number of legal disputes between Native voting rights advocates and states or localities.

Proposed Solutions

The Department of Justice began a lengthy tribal consultation as pressure from advocates mounted. In May 2015, the DOJ released proposed legislative language for a stand-alone bill, citing continued low turnout proportionately for Native American voters as reason for congressional action.

Among the solutions they proposed were that states and localities with reservations within their territory must allow tribes to choose the location of at least one polling place, provide the same compensation and benefits for the employees of these polling places, and require states to have the same polling opportunities and procedures on reservations as other polling areas (including same-day registration or early voting). Tribes are required to provide adequate staffing for the polling places, including sufficient translation and training. Senator Tester may also be introducing separate legislation that clarifies that VRA requires states and localities to translate ballots as necessary or requested.

The new legislation is certainly a huge step in the right direction towards ensuring that all Native Americans across the nation are provided the equal opportunity for voting, but there is a lot to be done.