Native American Voting Rights Act seeks to close 17 percent turnout gap

Native Americans are 17 percent less likely to vote than the general population, a gap that can be explained in large part by the fact that we don’t exactly make it easy for Native Americans to vote. As many reservations lack polling locations, their residents often have to drive over 100 miles round trip in order to cast ballots. Furthermore, a number of states with voter ID laws don’t recognize tribal IDs as valid proof of identity.

Congress is only just now getting around to addressing the issue.

The Native American Voting Rights Act, recently introduced by Senators Jon Tester, Mark Udall, Al Franken and Heidi Heitkamp, all Democrats, would mandate that polling locations be established on Native American reservations upon the request of the tribe, and that all states recognize tribal IDs as proof of identity. Tribes could also request that absentee ballots be mailed to all registered voters who live on their respective reservations. If passed, it would amend the Voting Rights Act to authorize the Justice Department to enforce these provisions.

The bill was inspired by a 2012 lawsuit, in which Native Americans from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana sued the secretary of state and local elections offices under the Voting Rights Act for failing to provide adequate opportunities to vote. As the Great Falls Tribune notes, “The lawsuit was settled, but the settlement was not entirely enacted,” highlighting the need for broader legislation.

As with other civil rights issues, Native Americans have been largely overlooked in the push for expanded ballot access. Native Americans were the last demographic group to be granted the right to vote, having been barred from the electoral process until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. That we are only now seeing legislation modeled after the Voting Rights Act of 1964, designed to address specific inequalities in ballot access for the Native American population, goes to show that the original Voting Rights Act didn’t adequately establish Native American voting rights in the first place.

Can't Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Can’t Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

The bill represents yet another example of how backwards our current definition of the right to vote is. We started with a list of eligible voters that was limited to white, landowning males and slowly added, resulting in a steady progression of “Them, too. Oh, and them. And them. And how did we not already include them?” This means that every expansion of the franchise has to be a fight, and that the whims of a state or locality can result in wildly different interpretations of who can vote when and where. Native Americans shouldn’t need a separate law for us to recognize their full, unequivocal right to equal access to the ballot. That should already be guaranteed for every citizen.

And it isn’t.

As I’ve written before, this is why an affirmative constitutional right to vote would be a totally not-redundant big deal. By establishing the right to vote as all-inclusive, any and all restrictions on that right have to have a compelling state interest, regardless as to whether those restrictions have a discriminatory effect. Want to require an ID that over ten percent of your citizens don’t have in order to vote? You’d better have some evidence that that kind of verification will stem some kind of widespread voter fraud. If you don’t — and you won’t — then you need to slow your roll. Want to conduct a purge of your county’s voter rolls? It had better be because those voters no longer live in that county, and not because their names are similar to those of criminals.

Voting rights shouldn’t be a cobblestone of interest groups; they should be a foundational, non-negotiable principle of a democratic republic. But if that’s too much to ask, then we should at the very least cobble all of our interest groups together.

Pass the Native American Voting Rights Act.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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