@AZ.BLT via Twenty20

This explainer is part of Prism’s series on Tribal Nations, Voting Rights, & Political Power. Read the rest of the series here.

How far would you travel to vote? How much would you spend to participate in an election? How much energy would you expend to cast your ballot?

While the act of voting should be a shared experience in civil participation across American society, where you live and who you are have a significant impact on what that experience looks like, and if you’re able to do it at all.

Voting can be by mail, in person, or for some military personnel, by app. It can happen on Election Day or the days and weeks leading up to Election Day. A polling place can be blocks away or in the next town over. It can take seven minutes to vote or significantly more than an hour. And the voting rules are always changing to reflect the current priorities of state lawmakers

For Native American voters, especially those living in rural communities and on reservations, voting experiences may vary widely from community to community, but they often include obstacles that other communities do not encounter. When we talk about protecting Native American voting rights, what does that mean?

A history of Native voting suppression

For Native Americans, the fight for voting rights is couched in a long history of racism and struggle. When the 14th Amendment was passed in 1866, making all persons born in the United States citizens, Indians on reservations were specifically excluded. Why? At least partially to keep them from voting. Michigan Sen. Jacob Howard opined, “I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me…” (Congressional Globe. May 30, 1866). Beyond racism, there were political reasons to keep Native Americans from voting. Given their large numbers at the time, Native American votes would have wielded significant political power.

It wasn’t until more than half a century later that Native Americans born in the United States were guaranteed citizenship with the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. But citizenship did not necessarily mean the right to vote. Many states found reasons to deny Native peoples the vote—residing on a reservation, tribal enrollment, and taxation policy were all given as reasons for rejecting Native citizens’ rights. One result was that, during this time, thousands of Native veterans (including American Indian Code Talkers returning from World War II) found themselves denied the basic civil liberties that they fought so hard to protect. 

Finally, in 1948, following lawsuits by returning war veterans demanding the right to vote, states like New Mexico and Arizona were forced to remove barriers to Native American voting. Utah was the last state to remove its Native voting barriers, which it did in 1962. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed exclusionary practices across the nation.    

Voting Rights Act brings progress

With voting rights officially available to Native Americans in every state and the Voting Rights Act on the books, attorneys and legal organizations like the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) filed lawsuits to enforce and improve voting access for Native American citizens. Subsequently, courts have identified voting rights abuses across the United States in Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and other states with significant Native American populations. 

For example, in some regions of Alaska, the majority of households primarily speak an Indigenous language. The Voting Rights Act requires language assistance be provided for these voters. Election officials must translate ballots and other materials, provide bilingual staff to register voters, and help voters at the polls through complete, accurate, and uniform translations. These steps are essential because without accurate translations and assistance, the right to vote becomes meaningless. It is impossible to vote effectively when you don’t understand what you are voting for. Under the Voting Rights Act, Alaska Native voters and tribes repeatedly and successfully sued the state to enforce these requirements early in 2014. In a great victory for Alaska Natives who wanted to participate in the democratic process, the courts required that local and state elections officials provide effective language assistance. This type of litigation and rising public awareness helped to bring progress. However, the Voting Rights Act and subsequent legislation did not fix every problem. 

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in the case Shelby County v. Holder. Disappointingly, since that change, a number of state legislatures have passed election laws that impose or reintroduce significant barriers to voters in tribal communities. As recently as this year, a court found Native Americans were being intentionally discriminated against in Arizona and struck down laws intended to keep Native Americans from being able to cast their ballot.

Native American Voting Rights Coalition

In response to this trend of reducing access to the ballot box, in January 2015, NARF proposed an ambitious new project: gathering voting rights advocates, lawyers, civil rights experts, and tribal advocates into one room. The goal was to discuss current problems with voting in Indian Country and begin to develop solutions to these problems. Previously, individuals and organizations working to protect Native voting rights did so independently, with no coordinated strategy in place. Often, the work was reactive—in response to an immediate threat—rather than proactive or planned in advance of an election. That is what the project was meant to change. Thus, the Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC) was formed. NAVRC includes, among others: Native American Rights Fund; National Congress of American Indians; American Civil Liberties Union, Voting Rights Project (ACLU); Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; Fair Elections Center; Western Native Voice; and Four Directions.

One of the coalition’s first projects was to better identify the obstacles that Native Americans faced when trying to participate in state and federal elections. Over the course of two years, the group held nine field hearings in Native American communities. At the hearings, they heard from 125 witnesses who spoke to the challenges encountered by voters in Native communities. These issues included inequitable distribution of resources, lack of accommodations, and blatant racism and intimidation. A few systemic problems rose to the top: language assistance as described above, distance travelled to register and vote, and voter identification requirements.

Obstacles for Native American voters

One of the most cited obstacles that people in Native American communities face when registering to vote or casting their ballot is the absurd distances that they must travel. For example, voters on the Duckwater Reservation in Nevada had to travel 140 miles each way to get to their elections office. And in places like Big Horn County, Montana, Native American voters have to travel twice as far to cast their ballot as non-Native voters. These longer distances take time and require missed work, child care, a car, and money for fuel. These commutes also often include dirt roads that can be impassable due to inclement weather during the November voting season. 

And it isn’t just a question of distance. Polling places are more frequently put in non-Native communities, even in places where the Native American population is greater. The combination of far distances and inequitable resources communicates to people in tribal communities that their vote doesn’t matter and the system is not intended for them.

Another significant problem that Native voters frequently cite is that in many Native communities, streets do not have standardized names or signs, homes on those streets are not numbered, and the postal service does not deliver mail, which makes the current necessity of expanded voting by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic especially challenging. States have used the lack of addressing to discriminate against Native Americans. North Dakota was thrust into the spotlight in 2018 when it required residential addresses on IDs in order to vote, even though it knew that many Native Americans in the state did not have such addresses. And other states may simply be oblivious—they require addresses to register, and don’t take into account the fact that some Native Americans cannot simply have their ballot mailed to their home. They certainly do not take into account the many miles Native Americans must travel to drop off their ballot to rural post offices that do not have the same pick up frequency as post offices in major cities. As a result, votes cast by Natives are delayed from being counted, that’s if they are timely received at all. 

And then there were the field reports of explicitly discriminatory and racist actions taken in some communities. Voting facilities in one tribal community were set up in a repurposed chicken coop. Native Americans described the humiliation felt by having to go through such degrading facilities. A community in Montana arbitrarily limited voter registrations submitted by Native American organizations. In Buffalo County, South Dakota, the 12 residents of the county seat had facilities to early vote, but the county auditor refused to give the 1,200 residents on the nearby Crow Creek reservation the same access to early voting facilities—even when federal funding was made available for that purpose.

A call for action

The distressing stories that came out of the voting rights field hearings make it clear that changes need to be made at the local, state, and federal levels. Protecting our right to vote is essential for our nation’s well-being. To that end, federal legislation was introduced last year in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Known as the Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA), the legislation takes some very meaningful steps to address the problems that Native American voters describe. Specifically, NAVRA requires that polling places be established on tribal lands, it allows tribes to designate buildings that can be used to register, pick up, and drop off ballots; requires tribal identification to be accepted for voting purposes; and it strengthens the language assistance requirements of the Voting Rights Act. These steps are easy to make and would take us a long way to addressing the systemic problems that Native American voters encounter when they go to the polls. 

The Native American Rights Fund is a nonprofit 501c(3) organization that focuses on applying existing laws and treaties to guarantee that national and state governments live up to their legal obligations.