Voting Rights in Short Supply in Indian Country

By Michelle Chen Oct 02, 2009

You might think the country’s oldest inhabitants would be treated as full citizens by now. But in the real world of American politics, Indian Country isn’t a swing state, and native people’s voting rights, like their communities, are relegated to the social and geographic margins of the electorate. According to a report released today by the ACLU, the "one person, one vote" concept doesn’t hold true on the country’s impoverished tribal lands. Despite the guarantees of the Voting Rights Act–largely known for its impact on the enfranchisement of blacks–racial, cultural and economic barriers keep many American Indians from the polls. Even after American Indians were officially deemed citizens under federal law in the 1920s, states used subtle tactics to disenfranchise Indian voters through discriminatory registration policies and other laws limiting political participation along racial lines:

tFrom unfair redistricting plans to discriminatory voter registration procedures, they have continued to be denied their constitutional right to vote, even long after those rights were re-affirmed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Today they still face unnecessary identification requirements, discrimination by poll workers, and a lack of language assistance. Courts have found that Indians who had registered to vote had their names removed from voting lists and that those who voted in primary elections have had their names removed from the list in subsequent general elections. They have been refused registration cards and subjected to laws banning precincts on reservations.

In addition to manipulation of district boundaries, language barriers and constraints on Indian voter participation, the ACLU notes that, in South Dakota, local officials for years resisted federal mandates under the Voting Rights Act, and advocates had to sue to get state authorities to comply with monitoring. And the barriers to the ballot are strewn throughout reservation communities. Extreme poverty, joblessness, a lack of educational opportunities, and the very fact of government-sanctioned segregation on reservations, all make life in the world’s oldest democracy feel pretty undemocratic. The ACLU report does note significant advancements in electoral participation in Indian communities. But perhaps frustrations at the polls just point to the need for cohesive social movements, like direct actions in response to environmental attacks on tribal lands. The disenfranchisement of America’s native peoples has been so total and remains so deeply entrenched that, even with the law on their side, true empowerment couldn’t be contained in a ballot box. Image: American Indian Movement flag Crossposted at