October 9, 2023
Indigenous Americans have long been subjected to systemic discrimination in this country. In fact, let’s be honest, the discrimination dates back to before this place became a country, back to the very first encounters between white European colonizers and the people who were already living here when they arrived. America’s native people have had to endure hundreds of years of genocidal violence and war, hundreds of years of land being stolen, treaties being broken, and cultures being eradicated. Then, when this land that used to be theirs became the United States of America, the government that fought them and eventually forced them onto reservations denied them their rights as citizens, including the right to vote.
On this Indigenous Peoples’ day, let’s take a moment to talk about the barriers to voting that STILL remain for Indigenous Americans—and how passage of the Freedom to Vote Act can help remove them.
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A Brief Timeline of Voter Suppression
To understand the situation now, we should first take a look at a few key dates in the long and sordid history of denying Indigenous Americans the right to vote.
- 1788: US Constitution ratified; Indigenous Americans aren’t considered citizens
- 1924: Indian Citizenship Act passes, but all Indigenous Americans still can’t vote
- 1962: 38 years later, Indigenous Americans finally win the right to vote in every state
- 1965: Voting Rights Act (VRA) passes, providing protections for Indigenous Americans
- 2020-today: States like Montana and Arizona pass new restrictive voting laws that have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous Americans
That’s right, the people who were here, ably practicing self-government, before “America” was “discovered” were not considered citizens when the Constitution became the law of the land. From there it took 136 years for Indigenous Americans to finally be granted citizenship via the Indian Citizenship Act, but even then there was an asterisk. Voting rights were managed state by state, each with its own restrictions, and Native Americans didn’t win the right to vote in every state until 1962.
But having the right to vote is not the same as being able to vote. That’s where the 1965 Voting Rights Act comes in. The VRA is usually remembered as the crucial piece of civil rights legislation that killed off the Jim Crow laws that made it nearly impossible for Black Americans to vote. But it did more than that. The VRA required nine states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get approval from the government before changing voting laws. Arizona and Alaska, along with two counties in South Dakota, were included among them because of how they’d long discriminated against their sizable Native American communities.
The VRA’s protections led to increased participation and turnout among Native Americans, but then came the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which gutted the VRA. That ruling gave the greenlight to Republican politicians to pass all kinds of new voter-suppression laws, again making it harder for Indigenous Americans (as well as Black people and those earning low incomes) to vote.
Barriers to Voting Today
A recent report highlighted some of the many barriers that prevent Native Americans from voting:
- Isolation: Tribal members often live many miles away from polling places, tribal facilities, and county offices.
- Bad housing: Homelessness and housing instability are pervasive on reservations and other tribal lands and also among Native Americans living in urban areas.
- Low tech: More than 90% of tribal land lacks broadband internet, resulting in little access to online registration or information about voting and elections.
- No addresses: Many reservations don't assign traditional addresses, with named streets and numbered homes, which makes it difficult for tribal members to receive and return mailed ballots.
- Limited IDs: State motor-vehicle and other administrative offices are rarely located near reservations and the cost of an ID card may also be too high for a disproportionately impoverished population.
This list speaks to more than voting challenges—we’re seeing here the impacts of social, environmental, and economic injustice, which is the real reason why voter ID laws and other voter-suppression tactics have hit Indigenous communities so hard. Coupled with the legacy of abuse and mistrust when it comes to dealing with the US government, they have resulted in registration and turnout that, historically, are significantly lower than other ethnic groups.
What We Can Do
Despite all this, and despite the awful toll that the pandemic had on Indigenous communities, Indigenous voter turnout increased significantly in 2020. Indigenous voting power helped swing the election to President Biden in states like Arizona and Wisconsin. A record-setting six Indigenous Americans (plus one Native Hawaiian) were elected to Congress. In 2021, Deb Haaland was appointed Secretary of the Interior, making her the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary in the history of the country.
That’s good news and worth celebrating—but it’s not enough. Indigenous Americans have waited far too long for necessary changes to come. And that’s why we need to do more, today. This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, please support the Freedom to Vote Act, which will secure and protect Indigenous rights and help make it easier for Indigenous people to vote.
If you believe that every American’s right to vote ought to be protected, then make your voice heard today!
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