A History of Indian Voting Rights and Why It’s Important to Vote
There has been no Indian Voting Rights Act, and no congressional hearings or testimony on such a bill. But as I demonstrated in my book Racism in Indian Country, there are many conspiracies among non-Indians on or near reservations to keep Indian people from registering to vote and to keep them from voting. There have been dozens of lawsuits filed against county voter registrars, county commissioners and state officials over denying Indians the right to vote.
When they returned from World War II, many Indian veterans were upset that they still could not vote. They had fought for their country, only to be denied this basic constitutional right when they got home. They began to lobby Congress and the state legislatures to give them suffrage rights. They had been exposed to the world outside the reservation, some for the first time, and had started to learn that they had been cheated out of many things, such as adequate housing, an adequate education, decent jobs, and the right to vote. They found they could not get loans to buy cattle, to start businesses, to build houses on reservations, and to buy cars and trucks.
Indians could still not vote in New Mexico and Arizona as of 1948. The denial of the right to vote was in the constitution of the State of New Mexico. It stated that Indians living on reservations could not vote in state and federal elections. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had started to push to change such laws before the war started, but had gotten sidetracked by the war.
When Miguel Trujillo, from Isleta Pueblo and a veteran of the Marine Corps during World War II, went to register to vote, he was told by the county registrar, Eloy Garley, that he could not register since he was an Indian living on a reservation.
Trujillo was incensed. He brought suit against the county registrar and won. (Trujillo v. Garley) Felix Cohen, who had written the definitive book on Indian law, the Handbook of Federal Indian Law, was Trujillo’s attorney. Finally, in 1948, Indians in New Mexico could vote for the first time. Trujillo and Cohen became friends and worked on other issues of civil rights in New Mexico and in the South.
The case also debunked the myth that Indians did not pay taxes. The only taxes Indians did not pay, the court said, was taxes on the land the government held in trust for them. They had to pay sales taxes, income taxes, and all other taxes.
In that same year, a lawsuit by another Indian veteran, Frank Harrison, in Arizona, let Indians vote for the first time in that state. (Harrison and Austin v. Laveen) Harrison was a member of the Mohave Tribe. He had tried to register to vote in Maricopa County, Arizona, and been denied by the county recorder, Roger Laveen. The ubiquitous Felix Cohen was also one of the attorneys in this landmark case. The National Congress of American Indians, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior also filed amicus curiae (friends of the court) briefs in this case. Thereafter, it was clear in all states of the union that Indians could vote in tribal, state, local and federal elections. Utah, however, did not get around to removing this barrier to Indian voting for another two decades.
The other states that had restricted Indian voting fell in line—to a limited extent. They continued to restrict Indian voting by refusing to allow roving registrars, by charging the poll tax, and by gerrymandering Indian votes to deny Indians the right to vote and to run for office.
But the legacy of Indians being denied the right to vote is still strong. Most Indians are either not interested in national issues, or are afraid that if they vote in national elections they will somehow lose their membership in their tribe. The latter is not true. And many barriers still exist to keep Indians from registering and voting. They include having one single election place in a county, requiring voters to travel from their reservation to the county seat to register to vote, refusing to allow roving registrars to register voters, and holding elections in places hostile to Indian voters.
Indian people have only slowly started, since 1980, to vote in increased numbers in national elections. The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) of Albuquerque found in surveys in the 1980s that only 15 percent to 20 percent of Indians in Arizona and New Mexico were registered to vote in state and national elections.
In most states, Indians are under 10 percent of the eligible voters. In only three states are Indians more than 10 percent of the total population. But in some cases, the Indian vote has been critical to the success of candidates. The Indian vote defeated the re-election of Slade Gorton, the anti-Indian former Attorney General of Washington State. Gorton was the lead attorney for sport fishermen who lost the case in the Boldt decision (U. S. v. Washington) that gave Indians the right to half the salmon and steelhead catch in the state. He ran for the Senate on an anti-Indian platform and won, but lost his bid for re-election when Indians mobilized against him.
Gary Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, won both elections with the help of the Indian vote and donations from tribal casinos. His opponent in the first election, Bruce King (Democrat), had waffled on support for tribal casinos during his third term as governor. This lost King almost all the Indian support. The Indian vote, which was about 6 percent of the total, put Johnson over the top in his first election in 1994. His opponent in the second election, my friend Martin Chavez, was the Democratic mayor of Albuquerque. Marty’s lack of spirited support for tribal casinos also cost him the election; Johnson won 54 percent to 46 percent in 1998. If Marty had had 3 percent more votes from Indians and 2 percent more from Hispanics, who are one of the main customers of the tribal casinos, Marty would have been governor.
Larry Echo Hawk, the recent Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, was the first Indian to win an election for statewide office. Denise Juneau, who is Mandan and Hidatsa, won the election in 2008 for superintendent of public instruction in Montana. Juneau is the second Indian person in the history of the U. S. to win such a statewide seat. She obviously won with mostly non-Indian votes, since Indians constitute less than 10 percent of the voting population in the state. It helped that she is an attorney and a former school teacher who paid her dues learning the system. She ran a spirited campaign, and defeated a well-known opponent. She was one of our scholarship students for her master’s degree in English from Harvard and for her law degree from the University of Montana.
Indians voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama for president in 2008, and probably added one or two percent to his election margin. With up to a million Indians voting nationwide, they could swing the margin in a close election, something numerous Indian voting advocates have pushed for years.
For the first time in 1980 there was an active campaign within the Democratic Party to have a voice in the election for president. Billie Masters, a Cherokee from California, headed the campaign. There were a dozen and a half Indian delegates at the convention. In 1984 there were 28 Indian delegates to the national convention of the Democratic Party. In 1988 there 51 Indian delegates, and in 1992 there were 62. In 1984, Roger Jourdain, Ada Deer, Ruby Ludwig, Verna Wood and I headed First Americans for Mondale. We had 28 Indian delegates at the Democratic convention, raised $32,000, and registered 30,000 new Indian voters. The Democrat Mondale lost to the Republican Ronald Reagan.
In 1988, a group of people put together an Indian effort to support the unsuccessful campaign of Michael Dukakis. He lost to George H. W. Bush. In 1992, attorneys Kevin Gover and Cate Stetson of Albuquerque headed First Americans for Clinton, and repeated their efforts in 1996. Ada Deer headed the BIA in Clinton’s first term. Gover headed the BIA in the second Clinton term.
There are now about 85 Indian elected officials in the United States. They are state senators and representatives, local sheriffs, county commissioners, and city council members. They have more authority than at any time in Indian history to influence budgets and policies. But the Indian vote is still too weak.
Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a scholarship program for Native college students. His last book was Racism in Indian Country. His next book is The American Indian Dropout. He welcomes your comments about dropouts; his e-mail address is CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com.