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How Native Americans' Right to Vote Has Been Systematically Violated for Generations
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=39883"><span class="small">Nina Lakhani, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Saturday, 17 October 2020 08:24

Lakhani writes: "Voter suppression has taken centre stage in the race to elect potentially the 46th president of the United States. But we've heard little about the 5.2 million Native Americans whose ancestors have called this land home before there was a US president."

A Standing Rock protest. (photo: Arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)
A Standing Rock protest. (photo: Arindambanerjee/Shutterstock)

How Native Americans' Right to Vote Has Been Systematically Violated for Generations

By Nina Lakhani, Guardian UK

17 October 20

In the new book Voting in Indian Country, Jean Reith Schroedel weaves together historical and contemporary voting rights conflicts as the election nears

oter suppression has taken centre stage in the race to elect potentially the 46th president of the United States. But we’ve heard little about the 5.2 million Native Americans whose ancestors have called this land home before there was a US president.

The rights of indigenous communities – including the right to vote – have been systematically violated for generations with devastating consequences for access to clean air and water, health, education, economic opportunities, housing and sovereignty. Voter turnout for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives is the lowest in the country, and about one in three eligible voters (1.2 million people) are not registered to vote, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

In a new book, Voting in Indian County: The View from the Trenches, Jean Reith Schroedel, professor emerita of political science at Claremont Graduate University, weaves together historical and contemporary voting rights conflicts.

Is the right to vote struggle for Native Americans distinct from the wider struggle faced by marginalized groups in the US?

One thing few Americans understand is that American Indians and Native Alaskans were the last group in the United States to get citizenship and to get the vote. Even after the civil war and the Reconstruction (13th, 14th and 15th) amendments there was a supreme court decision that said indigenous people could never become US citizens, and some laws used to disenfranchise them were still in place in 1975. In fact first-generation violations used to deny – not just dilute voting rights – were in place for much longer for Native Americans than any other group. It’s impossible to understand contemporary voter suppression in Indian Country without understanding this historical context.

Why didn’t the American Indian Citizenship Act 1924 nor the Voting Rights Act (VRA) 1965 guarantee Native Americans equal access to the ballot box?

The motivation for the VRA was the egregious treatment of black people in the south, and for the first 10 years there was a question over whether it even applied to American Indian and Native Alaskan populations. It wasn’t really discussed until a civil rights commission report in 1975 which included cases from South Dakota and Arizona that showed equally egregious discrimination and absolute denial of right to vote towards Native Americans – and also Latinos.

When voter suppression is discussed by politicians, advocates and journalists, it’s mostly about African American voters, and to a lesser degree Latinos. Why are Native Americans still excluded from the conversation?

Firstly they are a small population and secondly most of the most egregious abuses routinely occur in rural isolated parts of Indian Country where there is little media focus. But it’s happening – take Jackson county in South Dakota, a state where the governor has done little to protect people from Covid. The county council has just decided to close the legally mandated early voting centre on the Pine Ridge Reservation, citing concerns about Covid, but not in the voting site in Kadoka, where the white people go. Regardless of the intent, this will absolutely have a detrimental effect on Native people’s ability to vote. And South Dakota, like many other states, is also a very hard place for Native people to vote by mail. In the primary, the number of people who registered to vote by mail increased by 1,000% overall but there was no increase among reservation communities. In Oglala county, which includes the eastern part of Pine Ridge, turnout was about 10%.

The right to vote by mail is a hot political and civil rights issue in the 2020 election – could it help increase turnout in Indian Country?

No, voting by mail is very challenging for Native Americans for multiple reasons. First and foremost, most reservations do not have home mail delivery. Instead, people need to travel to post offices or postal provide sites – little places that offer minimal mail services and are located in places like gas stations and mini-marts. Take the Navajo Nation that encompasses 27,425 square miles – it’s larger than West Virginia, yet there are only 40 places where people can send and receive mail. In West Virginia, there are 725. Not a single PO box on the Navajo Nation has 24-hour access.

Preliminary data from my new research shows that all the mail sent from post offices off-reservation arrived at the election office within one to three days. Whereas around half sent from the reservation took three to 10 days. Rural whites are doing a whole lot better than rural Native Americans. This isn’t the only challenge: South Dakota requires mail ballots to be notarized but there are no notaries on reservations. And the level of trust in voting is generally low among Native Americans, but drops dramatically when asked about voting by mail.

Are Native Americans denied the right to vote because of ID requirements mandated by some states, supposedly to curtail voter fraud?

It can make it very difficult for people who live on reservations where many roads don’t have names or numbers – so-called non-standard addresses, which are very problematic in states requiring IDs with residential addresses. A number of states like South Dakota have chosen to make it a felony offense with prison terms and fines if someone votes using an address different to the one given to register, even though unstable housing is a big issue on reservations, and people crash in different places all the time.

Will Native Americans who only have tribal ID be refused the vote?

Tribal ID has not been accepted in a number of states in the past, including North Dakota and Minnesota. In some places the problem is that the tribal ID may not have a residential street address, because those do not exist on many reservations, or that government entities have in their records an address that was arbitrarily assigned to people with non-standard addresses, and that address does not match another assigned address on a different government list. But with respect to the upcoming election, we honestly won’t know how big an issue it is until people try to vote.

We’ve heard about felony disenfranchisement in black communities, especially in states like Florida. Does this impact Native Americans too?

It’s a major unstudied issue but what we do know is that laws passed after Reconstruction and the VRA specifically to disenfranchise African Americans were also passed in places which didn’t have black people. For example, Idaho put in place felony disenfranchisement around when it became the state, at a time when census data shows there were only 88 black people – it was designed to disenfranchise Native people. Half the states with harshest felony disenfranchisement don’t have many black people, but have big Native Americans or Latino populations.

Why are the Dakotas so important in the struggle for equality at the ballot box?

The Dakotas are the heart of what was the great Sioux Nations, who put together a cross-nation resistance to the incursion by Europeans, US military and militias. It’s a flashpoint where some of the worst massacres took place and it’s been one of the worst places for suppression of the Native American vote. North Dakota has passed one law after another that made it harder and harder for people to vote, which I think [most recently] was a retaliation to further disenfranchise Native people for standing up against the Dakota Access pipeline.

In South Dakota, more than a quarter of the 2016 registered voters in Todd county – which is the Rosebud Sioux – had been purged by 2020. This is huge. Todd county is an unorganized county, so the administration of elections is handled by an adjacent white county. These are red states, so little donor money goes into voting rights, but the white population is ageing, and younger whites are leaving the state. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how the Dakotas deal with the much larger Native American voting populations over the next 10 years.

Which are the states to watch in this election for potential voter suppression of Native American votes?

Arizona because it is a swing state and has all of the above issues; Montana, which can be considered a success story with regards to Native American representation in recent years, but where a lack of in-person voting could have a big impact. Alaska and Nevada have issues, and of course the Dakotas. your social media marketing partner