Voting Rights Act in focus with presidential election on horizon

Getting out the Native vote in in Alaska. Photo from Get Out The Native Vote-Interior Alaska / Facebook

With a presidential election on the horizon, top Obama administration officials are promising to protect the voting rights of Native Americans and other citizens.

As Republican candidates gathered for their first major debate, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch directed attention to the Voting Rights Act. The landmark law, which has been invoked successfully in cases across Indian Country, marked its 50th anniversary on Thursday.

"Because of that law — one of our nation's most influential pieces of legislation — Americans who were previously disenfranchised and left out of the democratic process were finally able to cast a ballot," President Obama said in remarks at the White House. "The law was designed to ensure that all American citizens, regardless of the color of their skin, had an equal opportunity to make their voices heard."

In a separate speech at the Department of Justice and in a conference call with the media, Attorney General Lynch said American Indians and Alaska Natives deserve the same opportunity to be heard. Government attorneys have intervened and participated in Native voting rights lawsuits in Alaska, Montana and South Dakota and the Obama administration developed legislation to place polling sites on reservations and in Alaska Native villages.

Thomas Poor Bear, the vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is the lead plaintiff in a voting rights lawsuit in South Dakota. The Department of Justice submitted a statement of interest in the case. Photo by Native Sun News

"We also work to extend the principles and the realities of the Voting Rights Act to Native American lands so that our tribal colleagues, friends and neighbors also maintain this important right," Lynch said on the conference call.

But both Obama and Lynch said the law has been weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The June 2013 decision invalidated a key provision that required certain states -- including Alaska and Arizona, where Native citizens have been subjected to discrimination at the polls -- to obtain "pre-clearance" before making changes to their voting plans or laws.

"Laws that roll back early voting. Laws with restrictive photo ID requirements," Obama said in describing measures that make it harder for some people to vote. "Laws that lead to improper purges of voter rolls."

Voter ID laws have been a particular concern for tribal citizens in Arizona and Minnesota. Some states accept tribal identification cards at the polls but Chelsey Luger, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said she was initially turned away when she went to vote last November in North Dakota.

In 1948, Miguel Trujillo won the lawsuit that ensured the right to vote for Native Americans in New Mexico. Photo from Colin Towler / Pinterest

"The right to vote with a Tribal ID is one that should not go unprotected," Luger wrote in Indian Country Today at the time. "It is the responsibility of voting sites in North Dakota and in any other state that advertises that Tribal IDs are acceptable to familiarize their personnel with how to process Tribal IDs as not to deter American Indian voters."

Polling places are also a big issue. Tribal citizens in states like South Dakota and Montana want to be able to vote closer to home but are often forced to drive long distances.

"Nobody should be denied the basic right to vote and have a say in the democratic process," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said last week upon introducing the Native American Voting Rights Act. "We should be doing everything we can to increase access to the polls and remove the barriers that keep too many folks from voting."

Tester's bill, S.1912, would require states to place polling sites on reservations at the request of tribes. It closely follows the DOJ proposal that Lynch, who was sworn into office in May, mentioned yesterday.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) listen as President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6, 2015. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

"We have consulted with tribal leaders and proposed new legislation that would ease access to polling places for those living on Indian reservations, in Alaska Native villages or on other tribal lands," Lynch said at DOJ headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The administration's focus on voting rights was not shared by the Republican presidential candidates at last night's debate in Ohio. None of the moderators asked about the issue and none of the 10 hopefuls who packed the stage brought it up. Most instead focused on illegal immigration, the state of the economy and the war on terrorism.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Stuart Delery: Safeguarding voting rights of the first Americans (05/29)
DOJ proposes bill to improve access to voting in Indian Country (05/22)
Judge won't dismiss Indian voting rights case in South Dakota (05/05)
Senate votes to confirm Loretta Lynch as next attorney general (04/24)
Native Sun News: Former US Attorney reflects on Indian cases (03/19)
Chelsey Luger: Tribal ID cards should be treated with respect (11/07)
Mark Trahant: Native voters must be prepared on election day (10/30)
Zachary Pullin: Native Americans overcame barriers to voting (10/29)
Think Progress: South Dakota county suppresses Native vote (10/24)
President Barack Obama urges early voting for Alaska Natives (10/23)
Mark Trahant: Early voting begins on reservations in Montana (10/10)
Tony West: Protecting the right to vote for the first Americans (8/4)
DOJ to consult tribes about polling locations in Indian Country (6/10)
Native Sun News: Supreme Court sets back Indian voting rights (7/4)
Opinion: Justice Scalia doesn't understand Voting Rights Act (04/29)
Editorial: Voting Rights Act necessary to prevent discrimination (03/12)
Voting Rights Act challenged by Supreme Court conservatives (02/28)
Trending in News
More Headlines