Stuart Delery: Safeguarding voting rights of the first Americans

Getting out the Native vote in in Alaska. Photo from Facebook

Stuart F. Delery, the acting associate attorney general at the Department of Justice, explains the need for the Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act, a bill that expands access to voting in Indian Country:
In 1975, recognizing the barriers to full participation that Native Americans continued to confront, Congress expressly included American Indians and Alaska Natives as protected groups under the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited many jurisdictions with large American Indian or Alaska Native populations from changing their voting laws until they could prove that the change would not create new barriers to participation. A number of jurisdictions with large Native American populations that have limited English proficiency — in six states, including Alaska — are also covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires bilingual election materials and assistance.

Despite these reforms, participation rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to lag behind turnout rates among non-Native voters. Estimates suggest that nationwide, while nearly 64 percent of non-Native adult citizens cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential election, less than 48 percent of Native American adult citizens voted. Part of that gap is attributable to differences in registration rates; but even among registered voters, the turnout among American Indians and Alaska Natives nationwide falls 5 to 14 percentage points below that of other racial and ethnic groups. And the gap with respect to Alaska Natives is especially large: Turnout among Alaska Natives often falls 15 to 20 or more percentage points below the non-Native turnout rate.

There are many examples of the problems American Indian and Alaska Native voters have faced getting to the polls. Residents of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota had to travel up to 150 miles roundtrip to vote until a federal court ordered the establishment of polling places on the reservation. And in Alaska, polling places to which Alaska Natives have been assigned are sometimes located across a river or other body of water or across a mountain range that is impassable on Election Day. The Alaska Division of Elections has assigned some Native villages to polling places that are 75 miles away and accessible only by air or boat.

Get the Story:
Stuart F. Delery: Calling on Congress to Protect the First Right for First Americans (DOJ Blog 5/26)

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