United States: Securing The First Right Of Citizenship For The First Americans: The Continuing Struggle Of Native Americans For The Right To Vote

This year marks two important milestones in the progression of the first Americans, our Nation's indigenous population, to secure equal access to the political process. Arizona celebrates the seventieth anniversary of Harrison v. Laveen, a 1948 decision that recognized for the first time that American Indians could vote in state elections. That same year, Native Americans won the right to vote in New Mexico after prevailing in Trujillo v. Garley. To the casual observer, the victories by Frank Harrison and Miguel Trujillo seem astonishing because Congress had already twice recognized the truism that our Nation's first people were United States citizens: in the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and again in the Nationality Act of 1940. But Arizona and New Mexico were not the last states to recognize the fundamental right of Native voters. Utah would not do so until 1956.

State recognition did not lead to equal voting rights. Disabling literacy tests prevented hundreds of thousands of Native voters who were denied schooling the ability to register to vote. Language barriers resulting from the absence of schools on tribal lands compounded that disenfranchisement. County and local governments also actively targeted tribal lands for political exclusion by gerrymandering practices such as in Apache County, Arizona, which packed Natives comprising a majority of the eligible voters into a single district, violating equal population (one person, one vote) requirements. Only with the passage of the 1970 and 1975 amendments to the federal Voting Rights Act, which banned literacy tests and required assistance be provided to limited-English speaking Native voters, did some of those barriers begin to fall.

Without question, indigenous voters have made substantial progress. In primary elections earlier this year, Native candidates achieved two stunning victories. In Idaho, Paulette Jordan, an enrolled member of the Coeur d'Alene tribe, became our country's first major party nominee for governor. In New Mexico, Democrat Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is poised to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress from her heavily Democratic district. Both follow in the footsteps of other ground-breaking moments for Native candidates: Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation who served as the first Native Vice President of the United States from 1929 to 1933 and the first Native United States Senator; William Paul, a member of the Tlingit Nation who was the first Alaska Native elected to the Territorial Legislature in 1925; and Byron Mallott, also Tlingit, who became the first Alaska Native elected to statewide office in 2014, to name just a few.

Yet despite how far Natives have come, much work remains to be done. In Alaska, it took nearly a decade and several lawsuits, including Nick v. Bethel and Toyukak v. Treadwell, to secure fledgling efforts by the state to provide language assistance to limited-English speaking Gwich'in and Yup'ik voters. In San Juan County, Utah, efforts are ongoing to enforce federal court orders in three separate cases involving intentional discrimination by County officials against Navajo voters: the elimination of gerrymandered school board and county commission districts that allowed non-Natives to control all government activities despite being in the minority; and a switch to all mail-in voting to deny Navajo voters to in-person polling places and the language assistance they need to participate in elections. In the past few months, San Juan County officials have removed two Navajo county commission candidates from the ballot in a transparent effort to circumvent the federal judge's rulings in the county redistricting cases.

Closer to home, lack of in-person registration and voting opportunities continue to deny Native voters in Nevada with equal access to the political process. In October 2016, in Sanchez v. Cegavske, Judge Miranda Du granted a preliminary injunction to members of northern Nevada tribes seeking in-person early voting and Election polling places. Native voters throughout the state continue to face substantial barriers to voting that are exacerbated by geographic isolation, lack of Internet access, poverty, and historical distrust of federal, state, and local governments that engaged in cultural (and even physical) genocide in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Elko County, members of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes on the Duck Valley Reservation have a voter registration rate below twenty percent, reflective of living in the region of Nevada identified by the Census Bureau as having the hardest to count population. The Duckwater Reservation in Nye County (Nevada's largest county and the nation's third largest county) faces even greater challenges. The two closest in-person voter registration and early voting sites are located in Tonopah and Pahrump, roundtrip drives of over five hours and ten hours, respectively, for voters lacking access to reliable transportation.

Led by the Native American Rights Fund, the Native American Voting Rights Coalition is working through grassroots organizing, legislative and policy efforts, and litigation, to remove these barriers. A recent series of nine field hearings in seven states resulted in testimony from nearly 125 witnesses about steps needed to secure voting rights for the First Americans. A detailed report of findings from those hearings will be released later this year. Only through vigilance of the fragile gains made by Native voters and continuing efforts to eliminate the remaining obstacles can the visions of Frank Harrison and Miguel Trujillo be fully realized.

Originally published in Clark County Bar Association

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