Indianz.Com > News > Few states make the grade when it comes to tribal inclusion in voting maps
Indianz.Com Video: Community Redistricting Report Card – Saundra Mitrovich of National Congress of American Indians
Few states make the grade when it comes to tribal inclusion in voting maps
Thursday, October 12, 2023

Tribes must be included “from the very beginning” of the redistricting process in order to ensure American Indian and Alaska Native voices are heard at the polls, a coalition of national organizations said in a new report that graded states on their voting rights efforts.

Alaska, California and New Mexico stood out for including tribal leadership, Saundra Mitrovich, the Director of External Engagement at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said during a virtual press conference on Wednesday. The three states received among the highest grades in the report released by the Coalition Hub for Advancing Redistricting and Grassroots Engagement, also known as CHARGE.

“So states like Alaska, California and New Mexico shared some very important key components in their redistricting efforts, which aided in part to successful outcomes for tribal nations,” Mitrovich said. “One of those very specific areas as tribal leadership — being both either centered or formally included — ensuring that state based coalitions were inclusive of an American Indian, Alaska Native voice from the very beginning in the redistricting process.”

In Alaska, which received a grade of “B” in the report, two Native leaders were appointed to the state’s five-member redistricting commission, Mitrovich noted. She said they were able to engage in meaningful outreach to Native people not just in urban areas, but in rural villages, in a state where they represent more than 15 percent of the population.

‘Their work secured a Senate district in east Anchorage, Alaska, that — rather than splitting — unified the district,” Mitrovich said of commission members Nicole Borromeo from the Alaska Federation of Natives and Melanie Bahnke of the Kawerak tribal consortium.

New Mexico, where Native people make up about 10 percent of the population, also received a grade of “B” in the report. While tribal leaders did not serve on the state’s citizen redistricting commission, they were included throughout the process, said Mitrovich, who added that a group called Naeva, formerly known as the Native American Voters Alliance, participated as well.

“Their ongoing testimony and map-drawing was key in passing the final maps, which secured power for Native voters in northwest New Mexico,” Mitrovich said of the efforts of tribes and Naeva.

California is one of just two states with an “A” grade in the redistricting report. It’s also home to more than 100 tribes and the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the country.

While speakers at the press conference did not go into detail about tribal inclusion in California, Mitrovich said the California Native Vote Project has been active in ensuring that Native people are heard throughout the process. And the state was singled out for being one of the few with an independent, citizen-led redistricting system, rather than one whose power is solely in the hands of elected officials.

“These states saw more transparency and increased public input throughout the process,” Elena Langworthy, the Deputy Director of Policy at State Voices, said of redistricting systems in California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Montana and Washington, all place with significant tribal presences.

But Arizona saw a grade of “B-” because Native people “lost political power” during the 2021 redistricting process, according to the report. Despite the existence of a Native member on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the state was able to bypass federal oversight following a controversial decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that weakened the Voting Rights Act in places known for racism and discrimination.

'Voting is Sacred'
A sign reading “Voting is Sacred” is displayed by the Native Organizers Alliance during the final stop of the Red Road to DC in Washington, D.C., on July 29, 2021. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Far more states — 20 of them — saw failing and near-failing grades. Among them was North Dakota, whose recent redrawing of local legislative districts resulted in voters from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Spirit Lake Nation not being able to send a Native representative to the State Senate for the first time since 1991, the report said.

“If no one’s watching in Indian County, some local jurisdictions are more than happy to dilute the Native vote.” – Sam Kelty, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Native American Rights Fund is quoting as saying in the report.

Overall, the CHARGE report was filled with examples of “massive failures” in redistricting efforts across the nation. Fifteen states — including Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming — were given grades in the “C” range by the coalition.

Redistricting processes are tied to the work of the U.S. Census Bureau, which conducts a count of the U.S. population every 10 years. State use the decennial census data, the most recent of which comes from 2020, to draw maps for their voting districts not just at the local level but for representation in the U.S. Congress.

The resulting maps therefore have a significant impact on everyday life — including funding levels for critical programs. For Indian Country, where the U.S. government’s trust and treaty responsibilities have never been fully fulfilled, outcome of redistricting processes carries added weight.

“Tribal Nations are substantially underfunded in critical infrastructure areas such as housing, roads, broadband, education, and healthcare,” NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright, Jr. said in a news release about the CHARGE report. “To ensure equitable distribution of resources, all American Indian and Alaska Native voices must be included throughout the entire redistricting process to allow for equitable voting power and fair representation.”

The report also pointed out that data from the 2020 Census was delivered to states six months later than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected Native people. The time in which the public was able to provide input for voting maps and the ways in which the public was able to participate were limited.

The CHARGE coalition includes NCAI, State Voices, Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, Common Cause, Fair Count, League of Women Voters, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, NAACP and the Center for Popular Democracy.
Filed Under
More Headlines