Ahead of Election, Native Americans Rise Up Against Repressive Voting Laws

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Ahead of Election, Native Americans Rise Up Against Repressive Voting Laws

"This is merely the continuance of a long history of limiting the right to vote, so this isn’t new. Voter suppression has been the reality since the beginning."

Navajo youths attend a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Flagstaff, Arizona on March 17, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Nancy Wiechec)

Navajo youths attend a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Flagstaff, Arizona on March 17, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Nancy Wiechec)

Refusing to be silenced by restrictive new voting laws, Native Americans across the western U.S. are taking their fight to the courts, arguing that tribal communities have become even further disenfranchised by rules passed in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark voting rights ruling.

An in-depth report published by Reuters on Tuesday highlights revisions to a North Dakota law that "eliminated a provision that had allowed people without proper identification...to vote if they were recognized by a poll worker or if they signed an affidavit swearing to their identity." 

In that state, which holds its Democratic primary on June 7, American Indian and Alaska Native peoples comprise the largest minority—just over five percent compared to less than one percent of the national household population, according to the state census (pdf). 

As many tribal IDs don't include addresses, nor can those living on impoverished reservations afford to pay for updated identification, these restrictions "disproportionately burden Native American voters in North Dakota," argues a lawsuit (pdf) filed in January by the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund (NARF).

"Maybe it's no big deal if you work, but it's a big deal to people that don't have access to $10," said Richard McCloud, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, which has a reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota.

NARF is expected to file a motion by June 30 requesting that the court invalidate the changes to the ID law ahead of November's election, Reuters reports, as the state's growing Native American population may have the ability to "tip the balance" in key races.

"The Native American vote is not big enough to flip a safe Republican state such as North Dakota into the Democrat column in this year’s presidential election," notes Reuters, "but Native Americans are a growing proportion of the population and a majority in some counties where increased voter turnout in recent years has tipped the balance in some congressional races."

Indeed, since the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, native groups have flagged voting-related problems in 17 states via litigation or tribal diplomacy with local officials, according to a recent survey by Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN).

In the past three years, five federal lawsuits involving Native Americans have been filed, including three in 2016 alone, Reuters notes.

"It’s a very bad trend," Laughlin McDonald, special counsel and director emeritus of the Voting Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, told ICTMN. "There is an illusion that we have a society based on democracy, but it was founded on the aristocracy of the white male property owner. This is merely the continuance of a long history of limiting the right to vote, so this isn’t new. Voter suppression has been the reality since the beginning."

In Arizona, which also has a substantial Native American population, voters experienced egregious problems accessing polls during the March primary.

"Arizona was one of the states covered under the Voting Rights Act, and when it got gutted, that hurt people here a lot," Katherine Yell, director of operations for the Democratic Party in Coconino County, which is about 27 percent American Indian, told the International Business Times. "Arizona has what I like to call draconian voter ID laws. You have to register in advance at least a month before the election, you have to have a photo voter ID with your permanent address on it, which makes it tough for people who travel for work because there’s not a lot of work on the reservations."

As IBT reporter Abigail Abrams wrote at the time, "While much of the national conversation has been focused on Southern states and laws affecting African-American and Hispanic voters, Native Americans in places like Arizona also are affected by policies that discourage them from voting, which have resulted in some of the lowest voter participation rates of any demographic group in the country."

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders—who, along with his wife Jane Sanders, have made a point of meeting with tribal leaders throughout the campaign—has specifically promised to "stand with Native Americans to fight for Indian voting rights."

Pratt Wiley, head of voter protection issues at the Democratic Party, said that new voting rules are part of "a much broader, deliberate, and concerted effort by Republicans to reduce turnout among particular groups of voters on election day" adding that Native American voters "are more vulnerable today than they were before the [Supreme Court ruling]."

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