A small American flag hangs from the post of a stop sign near the Tsé Kichíí (Red Rock) chapter house near Gallup, New Mexico. (Marianna Hauglie/News21)
Marianna Hauglie/News21
A small American flag hangs from the post of a stop sign near the Tsé Kichíí (Red Rock) chapter house near Gallup, New Mexico.

Native Americans Still Fighting for Voting Equality

Mike Lakusiak/News21

Terry Whitehat remembers gathering at the community hall in Navajo Mountain each election day, where Navajo Nation members in this remote Utah community would cast their ballots.

The tribal members would catch up with friends and family and eat food under the cottonwood trees in the parking lot.

So when Whitehat, a social worker who has lived most of his life on the reservation, received a ballot in the mail for the 2014 elections, he said it caught him off guard.

The county began conducting elections by mail in 2014. Members of the Navajo Nation who live in the area could no longer physically vote in the village. If they wanted to vote in person, they would have to drive to the only remaining polling place at the county seat in Monticello, a 400-mile round trip from Navajo Mountain.

Whitehat and a half-dozen other Navajo community members, along with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, sued the county. They claimed the move to a mail-only election disenfranchised Native Americans, especially those who don’t read or speak English and had limited access to mail. They said it also violated the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment.

Across the country, other tribal members have filed similar suits alleging that state laws and county election practices intentionally make it harder to vote on reservations. Local jurisdictions don’t always provide translators or polling locations on reservations, and tougher state voter identification laws have created problems for those who don’t have birth certificates or only have tribal ID.

“Native Americans have been the victim of the political process since the creation of the United States,” said OJ Semans, a retired police officer turned Native American voting rights crusader in South Dakota. “What we need to do is organize in order to protect what our ancestors passed on to us.”

“But it’s hard to do when everything you’re trying to have your people participate in, they put stumbling blocks,” Semans added.

Despite gaining the rights to citizenship and voting in 1924 from the federal government, Native Americans in some states could not vote until 1962. Those who live on reservations have consistently dealt with distances and language barriers when it comes to voting. But experts who have studied Native American voting rights said recent changes to legal requirements and provisions for voting have exacerbated those problems.

After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states and jurisdictions with histories of discrimination no longer needed to obtain clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before making changes to the voting process.

The provision had covered Alaska and Arizona, two states with high Native American populations, as well as two reservations in South Dakota. Since the ruling, attorneys have filed lawsuits over voting changes affecting Native Americans in all three states.

RELATED: Historic Voting-Rights Win in Alaska

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, has worked on voting rights litigation with Native American nations and advocacy groups for years. She said policymakers simply don’t consider how conditions in some Native American communities pose barriers to voting that wouldn’t cause problems in cities or towns with basic services.

“They don’t understand,” she told News21. “They just think everybody can just walk out to the mailbox, or make a telephone call, but life isn’t like that in a lot of places in Indian country.”

Increasing influence

Native Americans have historically had some of the lowest turnout rates of any ethnic group in the country, according to several studies examining voter participation.

However, two recent studies by researchers at the University of Wyoming and the University of New Mexico indicated that voting among Native Americans has increased. The University of New Mexico study used U.S. Census Bureau data and found that in the 2008 general election, Native Americans were nearly 30 percent less likely to vote than non-Hispanic whites. However, in 2010 and 2012, there was virtually no difference between the two groups.

Researchers have attributed the change to various factors, including increases in educational attainment and higher incomes. The dynamic between Native American nations and government entities – from the local to federal levels – has shifted over time as Native American communities became more involved in issues such as the use of natural resources and gambling.

Jacqueline Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said Native Americans see the direct effects of federal policy on their lives. “That’s what pulls people to the polls for us,” Pata said. “Whether it be about Indian health care, or whether it be about the recognition of tribes and inclusion of tribes as governments.”


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