Courtney Yellow Fat, a tribal council member for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was forced to drive an hour and a half to the capital city of Bismarck, the only place in North Dakota he could go to get identification to meet the state’s strict new ID requirements. These restrictions, among others, were put in place immediately following Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s surprise victory in 2012. The state legislature also ensured there were no places on reservations where one could obtain a state ID. Then, right before the 2016 election, the state GOP passed legislation to severely curtail the use of absentee ballots, slashed the use of many other forms of ID, and finally, forbade the use of registration with mail services.
This posed a serious problem for Fat, because he lived on a reservation for most of his life that, like most, didn’t use street addresses. Culturally and historically, roads on reservations like his weren’t named. Furthermore, post office boxes are traditionally used for mail because so many residents live in such rural areas, and the population tends to be transient, with members sharing different homes. P.O. boxes were no longer allowed to be used for addresses. Fat made up a name, “Sitting Bull Street,” which became the name for the road. Although he was able to get his ID, these new laws, coupled with the fact that North Dakota does not have polling sites on reservations, had a devastating impact on the state’s Native American population. The Democrats lost many elections afterward, including the one for Heitkamp’s reelection.
The U.S. has a long, sad history of suppressing voting rights for American Indians. States like Oklahoma demanded all of the tribe’s land, as well as dissolution of the tribe, in order to become citizens so they could vote. In addition, some states, like Minnesota, required a racist “cultural purity test” that would only allow their Indigenous population to vote if they adopted the “language, customs and habits of civilization.”
Yet even after all that, and despite the contributions and sacrifices the Native population made to the U.S., this nation still did not consider them citizens. Some states claimed they were “wards of the state.” Victories won for civil liberties during Reconstruction specifically excluded Native Americans. The 14th Amendment was even written to cut out Indigenous people as citizens. Sadly, attacks on Native Americans aren’t ancient history as the GOP continues to this day to suppress their vote. In fact, with over a million American Indians unregistered, and their proclivity for supporting Democrats, the GOP has tripled efforts to suppress them by exploiting situations unique to Native Americans.
North Dakota was the last state to grant on-reservation Native Americans the right to vote in 1958. Unfortunately, the campaign for voter suppression against Indigenous populations exploded after the Supreme Court essentially nullified the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Every state that has a large Native American population that is controlled by Republicans has put laws in place targeting them to make voting as difficult as possible. Many are on rural reservations with few transportation options, so the GOP takes away polling sites nearby and bans the use of absentee ballots. Many of these states refuse to accept tribal identification, while others refuse to print ballots in the local Native languages. While each state gets creative with their deviousness, they all have the same goal.
South Dakota has an even worse legacy than their northern neighbors. South Dakota was nicknamed the “Mississippi of the North” for their rigorous suppression of Native American voting rights. The 14th Amendment was supposed to grant citizenship to anyone “born or naturalized” in the United States. Yet they had to be “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” which was interpreted to exclude American Indians who lived on tribal lands. Sadly, it wouldn’t be until 1924 that the Indian Citizenship Act made them full citizens.
Even then, South Dakota still ignored their rights and forbade American Indians from voting or holding elective office. Three counties continued to unlawfully deny their right to vote until the mid-’70s, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that they were finally allowed to serve in all elected offices. While the majority of the counties targeted in the Voting Rights Act were in southern states, two of South Dakota’s counties were included for their blatant suppression of the state’s Indigenous people.
Sadly, the prejudices and suppression continue to this day. Despite 10% of South Dakota’s population being Native American, Republican legislators refused to consider allowing the use of Tribal IDs to qualify as voter identification. South Dakota also doesn't provide voter registration services as required by the National Voter Registration Act, which states that public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices have to provide those services. The state’s refusal spawned a lawsuit from two Sioux tribes saying their members were disproportionately affected. In addition, South Dakota rejects an unusually large number of completed applications that tend to impact Indigenous applicants.
In addition to those two counties in South Dakota, there were two other states added in 1975 that require preclearance under the Voting Rights Act (VRA): Arizona and Alaska. In Alaska, there are over 230 federally recognized Indian tribes that make up 15.6% of the state’s population. There has long been a history of voter suppression against the Indigenous population, but after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, Alaska Republicans went back to the work of suppression.
The Alaska GOP requires anyone getting an absentee ballot to sign certification in front of a notary, and made no exceptions during the pandemic. The Arctic Village Council complained that this was a burden because Alaskan Natives were over five times as likely as white Americans to get COVID-19, and their hospitals were understaffed and underequipped. In fact, Alaskan Natives accounted for almost 50% of all COVID-19 deaths in the state. However, the state GOP cynically decided that this would mean their Native population would be more likely to stay home during the election. Thankfully, the Alaska Supreme Court issued an injunction before the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, after attempting to gerrymander districts to dilute the Black and Native vote, the state GOP has advanced multiple voter suppression bills that target immigrants and minority voters. One bill requires the purging of voters who have been excused from jury service in the past, and yet another bill requires that valid, mailed ballots be discarded that arrive after Election Day, even if they were mailed prior. Another bill forbids local election officials from receiving grants, which help to not only ensure adequate supplies, but also that there are enough workers to work the polls. This would impact the tribal communities.
Democrats have a fantastic pickup opportunity in North Carolina’s 9th District, which is held by one of the weakest Republican incumbents, Dan Bishop. This district became infamous in 2018 for a Republican scheme that resulted in 62% of all requested absentee ballots to not be returned from a county where the Lumbee Tribe members lived. Their votes were likely discarded or altered, and a new election was called when the fraud by Republican operatives was discovered. This year, a member of the Lumbee Tribe is running. Democratic candidate Charles Graham has what is undoubtably the most viral campaign video of the 2022 midterm cycle:
Over in Montana during the same period, the Republican legislature passed a severely restrictive law with the deceptive name Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA). This law specifically targeted the state’s American Indians. Most of the state uses absentee ballots because so many people live in rural areas, and because during election season there are often blizzards that make transportation difficult even for those with the means to travel.
Rural tribal communities have had to work with voting organizations to collect and transport ballots to election offices that would otherwise be inaccessible. These efforts are essential for those residents to vote, which is exactly why the Republican legislature recently outlawed ballot collection efforts. The ACLU is currently suing to block the law from taking effect, and there is presently a temporary restraining order. The chances of voting rights prevailing with the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court, however, are slim. This can be seen with the high court’s recent ruling where all the conservative justices ruled in favor of Arizona’s outlandish voter suppression laws.
Speaking of which, perhaps no state has done more to curtail American Indian rights this cycle than Arizona. The Republicans in the Grand Canyon State also have a long and sad history of suppressing the tribal vote. There are 22 federally recognized tribes all across Arizona, and the GOP clearly made the calculation decades ago that it was better to make it difficult for them to vote than to reach out to them.
Back in 2004, Arizona passed a voting registration law in violation of the Voting Rights Act that added requirements beyond the federal qualifications to vote, such as requiring documents to prove citizenship. The Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona sued the state, since it was a direct attempt at suppressing their vote. Arizona also passed a voter ID law that excluded tribal identification. The American Bar Association tried to intervene and shared the story of one Navajo grandmother:
She tried several times to obtain an Arizona ID on her own but was denied because she was born at home in a hogan, and the boarding schools changed her Navajo name to English.
Working with her, a team from the Indian Legal Clinic traveled five hours to meet her at multiple agency offices to obtain her delayed birth certificate; we then went to two separate Motor Vehicle Division Offices. The first one did not issue same-day photo IDs, and the other initially denied her request.
The office rejected her delayed Navajo birth certificate, until I was able to intervene and demonstrate to them that it was an acceptable document. The system failed to consider her reality as a Navajo woman and failed to value her as a voter.
Voting rights activists worked with the Navajo and other Indigenous people to overcome these massive barriers in the 2020 election, which resulted in a record number of American Indians turning out to vote. Three counties that overlapped the Navajo and Hopi Nations saw turnout rise up to 10 percentage points in 2020.
However, just as they always do, the state GOP went ballistic and immediately set to work on voter suppression laws to ensure this never happens again. The Republican state legislature passed two suppression laws and is working on others. The two they passed banned the collection of absentee ballots by anyone other than a relative or caregiver, and then passed another law that can only be described as a blatantly cruel joke: If any ballot is cast in the wrong precinct, it is thrown out. A federal appeals court rightfully struck these two laws down as obvious targeted voter suppression, yet the Supreme Court, on a 6-3 conservative majority, reversed the decision and let those awful discriminatory laws stand.
Just in case you had any doubt that those laws were designed to suppress minority voting rights, when Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked why the Republican Party had an interest in protecting a law that throws out a ballot if it’s in the wrong precinct, the Republican lawyer, Michael Carvin, answered honestly. He said that by allowing the suppression laws to be struck down, it would “put us in a competitive disadvantage with the Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game!”
That was seriously their argument before SCOTUS: not a legal answer, but a blatant political (and discriminatory) justification. It should never have worked, but it did. Even Justice Barrett, who was visibly surprised at such a bluntly worded, ridiculous answer, ruled in favor of the suppression.
That success has emboldened the Republican state legislature to go further, with an avalanche of bills for even stricter voter ID laws, making absentee ballots even harder to access, and banning local election officials from conducting voter registration drives on non-government property (which means no voter drives on reservations). With the myriad issues that Arizona is suffering, the Republican legislature acts as if nothing is more important than suppressing the minority vote. For their party’s survival, it is.
Not only do Democrats have to fight these voter suppression efforts, but now they also have to fight on a new front that I never thought I’d see: voter nullification. Arizona’s right-wing extremists serving as legislators have attempted a bill to overturn the results of a presidential election if the Democrat wins, even after formal certification of the count and after Congress counts the state’s electors. They are now trying again with new legislation that allows the legislature the ability to “reject” results it doesn’t like. Unsurprisingly, other Republican-controlled states are joining in.
Republicans already use the Indigenous population as scapegoats to their base for losing elections. Donald Trump falsely claimed that American Indians in Arizona and Nevada were paid to vote in 2020. This ridiculous claim was enough for at least 30 Arizona lawmakers to try and overthrow the election results of their own state on Trump’s behalf.
Suffice it to say, attacks on civil rights repeats itself in states that have a Republican trifecta in state government and a significant American Indian population. The Republican Party is about staying in power at all costs, even if that means sacrificing democracy and our sacred right to vote. The situation is bad enough that tribal leaders, politicians, and legal experts testified before Congress last October about the long-standing Republican assault on their voting rights.
New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján, whose state overlaps a portion of the Navajo and Apache Nation, explained that American Indians cannot rely on Republican-led states to protect their rights and that Congress must act:
"Our democracy is at stake and we have a moral imperative to act to ensure that Native Americans have their voices heard in our electoral process, and combat the barriers that exist."
Luján called for passage of the Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA) that would finally give federal protection for the electoral process for Native Americans. The act would do the following:
- Require tribal-issued IDs to be recognized as voter identification for those states that have voter ID laws
- Allow tribes to determine the number and location of voter registration sites, polling places, and drop boxes on their reservations
- Bar states from closing these sites without tribal consent
- Improve language access by ensuring voting materials are translated into tribal languages in states that have Indigenous populations, and carve out an exemption for verbal voting assistance since certain native language is oral only
- Establish a voter task force run by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission to ensure compliance
Surprisingly, this bill is slightly bipartisan, as Republican Oklahoma Sen. Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, has endorsed it. Unfortunately, Cole is still a Republican, which means he insisted the bill take out anything to do with third-party ballot collections. That is unfortunate, since Native voters heavily rely upon them. Nonetheless, it’s something. Cole even identified three GOP senators who might support the bill if it ever came up for a vote: Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Todd Young of Indiana.
If Democrats ever get the courage to amend the filibuster requirements to allow for voting/democracy protection, they might as well include full reform. This includes absentee ballot guarantees and expanding the use of satellite polling stations for reservations. That would be welcome news to the members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Utah, who had to travel almost 100 miles round trip just to vote in the last election.
Democrats would also do well to expand voting registration opportunities since one-third of the Native American population isn’t registered to vote. One proposal is to designate Indian Health Service (IHS) facilities as official voter registration agencies under the National Voting Rights Act. The IHS health system assists almost 2 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives with 670 facilities located in 35 states.
Unfortunately, no voting rights legislation will occur unless Democrats can implausibly obtain 60 seats in the Senate, unless we alter the filibuster. Somewhere along our journey, exercising our fundamental right to vote went from being an American value to a completely partisan issue, along with the fundamentals of democracy.
Despite the Republicans’ best efforts, Native Americans broke records for turnout during the last election, and Biden’s victory in states like Wisconsin and Arizona are due to their determination to vote regardless. Organizations like the Northeast Arizona Native Democrats hired Indigenous organizers to deliver aid, register voters, and coordinate options for turnout amongst the Hopi, Apache, and Navajo. Turnout nearly doubled from the previous election. However, they received no funds from party leadership or national campaigns. They credited Daily Kos and out-of-state organizations with raising money outside the Democratic establishment. Democrats ignore their efforts at their own peril.
I know that Democratic politicians have a lot on their plate, with not only fundraising and campaigning, but also being tasked to secure everyone’s right to vote without interference. Yet we must embrace this reality in order to not only win, but to save democracy in our nation. We have to do it, because the only other major party we have are the suppressors.
Help Native Americans exercise their right to vote: