WASHINGTON, D.C. — During a Senate roundtable Tuesday on “Voting Rights, Access, and Barriers in Indian Country,” North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) turned to the tribal leaders and voting advocates and asked a question they were all thinking.
“Why should we have to sue every year in North Dakota to get voting rights for Native people?” she asked.
Throughout the morning, witnesses explained to the Senate Indian Affairs and Rules committees how barriers to the ballot persist in Indian Country, almost 100 years after Native Americans were granted the right to vote and more than 50 years after Congress signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to protect the civil rights of the country’s marginalized populations.
As ThinkProgress recently reported, voters in Indian Country have faced renewed barriers to the ballot since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013. In states with large Native American populations, elected officials have cut voting hours and opportunities, refused to add voting locations on reservations, eliminated language assistance services, and fought to keep Native voters in majority-white gerrymandered districts where they’d never get political representation.
On Tuesday, advocates and tribal leaders who have worked to identify the problems urged the Senate to act to eliminate those barriers.
Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, spoke about how before the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, she remembers receiving notices every time Alaska officials attempted to change election laws. After the ruling, she said she has not received a single notice, making it impossible to know when lawmakers are attempting to suppress voters. Some of the most restrictive provisions, she noted, are tucked into minor changes in election law.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) agreed with Kitka. The senator from the state with the country’s highest voter turnout said that passing the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act would help remedy that problem and restore preclearance requirements in certain states with a history of discrimination. Klobuchar pointed out that she also sits on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary — the body that would be responsible for renewing the VRA — and said she would act to move the law forward when there is more support (most likely, when Democrats take back the Senate).
Without help from Congress to address the barriers through legislation, advocates for Native voters have had to rely on costly and time-intensive litigation. Over the past five years, Native American voters and groups representing them have brought at least seven lawsuits in six states, accusing state and local governments of discriminating against Native American voters. All but one legal challenge has been successful.
Jim Tucker, a lawyer on the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, told the hearing that the lawsuit he filed to seek language assistance for Alaska’s Native voters was extremely expensive and took years of work. And he noted that each win hangs in a balance. One new election official or change in control of local or state government could undo all of the gains, he said.
Instead of relying on advocates to identify problems and file lawsuits, Tucker said that Congress could amend existing law to protect people who speak Native languages and could extend more Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding to states with Native populations.
“There’s been no federal HAVA funding since 2002,” he said. “States still have some left in … their personal piggy banks, but there needs to be some additional federal appropriations to really facilitate some of these programs.”
He told ThinkProgress he plans to send demand letters to Arizona and Nevada ahead of the November midterms, asking them to open voting locations on reservations. If the letters aren’t successful, he said the Native American Rights Fund may file litigation.
Other tribal leaders spoke about issues that would be more difficult for Congress to fix or issues that would take years of work. Some suggested that voter education and engagement campaigns could help bring more Native voters to the polls. Others said that hiring Natives to run their own elections would help empower them to get involved in politics.
Jackson Brossy, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said he’d like to see a shift in how non-Natives treat the country’s Native people.
“We should not have to talk about blatant discrimination,” he said. “Here we are in 2018 — we still face many, many unacceptable barriers to voting for Navajo people.”