News / USA

    Native American Groups Defend Their Right to Vote

    FILE - Members of the Native American Voters Alliance mark their ballots at an early voting center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct. 26, 2012.
    FILE - Members of the Native American Voters Alliance mark their ballots at an early voting center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct. 26, 2012.
    Cecily Hilleary

    When Americans go to the polls this November to elect the next U.S. president, Native American groups worry that many of their members will be turned away from the ballot box.

    Native Americans won U.S. citizenship more than 90 years ago. Even so, many states denied them — as they did African Americans — the right to vote, subjecting them to poll taxes, literacy tests, harassment and intimidation. 

    In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA), banning such discriminatory practices and giving the federal government the authority to monitor elections to ensure they are fair.

    In 2013, however, the Supreme Court defeated a key provision in the VRA. As a result, certain states with a history of racial discrimination are no longer required to get pre-clearance from the Federal government before they can make changes to election systems.

    Soon afterwards, states began to change the rules.  Some argued that they acted to prevent non-U.S. citizens from voting. But Native Americans and other minority groups complain the new policies discourage them from voting.

    Kansas, for example,  passed a law requiring voter registrants to provide proof-of-citizenship documents such as birth or naturalization certificates or passports.  Voters have 90 days to produce the documents before the state will remove them from the rolls altogether.

    Arizona, which is home to one of the largest Native American populations, in 2014 placed more than 500 registered Navajo voters on what it called a “suspense list” because they lacked proper street addresses. Indeed, as the Nation noted in 2012, Arizona’s voter registration form includes a large box on which Navajo voters can draw the location of their home in order to determine their precinct.

    FILE - An isolated Navajo home located in a small canyon east of Tuba City, Ariz., Aug. 30, 1993. Many Navajo don't have street addresses, a requirement for voting in Arizona. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)
    FILE - An isolated Navajo home located in a small canyon east of Tuba City, Ariz., Aug. 30, 1993. Many Navajo don't have street addresses, a requirement for voting in Arizona. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)

    North Dakota, where Native Americans represent about five percent of the population, requires voters to present identification cards bearing their current residential address. Because many Natives don’t have ID cards or drivers licenses, they are disqualified from voting.

    Long-distance voting

    O.J. Semans, an Oglala Sioux, is co-executive director of Four Directions, a nonprofit that promotes Native voting rights across the country. Because his county is not “organized,” up until just a few years ago, he and other residents of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota were forced to drive 60 miles to the next county to vote in elections.

    “What you are looking at are individuals that have been consistently shown to be in the top 10 poorest counties in the whole United States,” Semans said. “You are looking at unemployment of 70 to 80 percent. And you are looking at one house, five families; three houses, one car. Never mind paying for the gas to get to the next county.”

    South Dakota also allows registered voters to vote by mail, but Semans said even that is a hardship for Native Americans.

    “If I wanted to vote absentee without going to the county office, I would write them a letter with an affidavit. I would have to find a notary to notarize my signature, saying that this was me,” said Semans. “Then I’d have to go to the post office and mail it, and sometimes, believe it or not, 49 cents for a stamp is kind of hard for some folks to come up with.”

    Because many residents in Rosebud don’t have mailing addresses, mail delivery is sporadic, and the mail-in ballot may never arrive. And even if it does, tribal members may have a difficult time filling it out.

    “A lot of our elders still speak our traditional language, and they don’t read or write that well,” said Seman. “And if they do manage to fill out the ballot, then they have to go to the post office to mail it back election authorities.”

    FILE - In this July 31, 2013 photo, O.J. Semans, of Rosebud, S.D., executive director of the voting advocacy group Four Directions, listens in Pierre, S.D., as the South Dakota Election Board discusses a proposal to use federal money to set up satellite v
    FILE - In this July 31, 2013 photo, O.J. Semans, of Rosebud, S.D., executive director of the voting advocacy group Four Directions, listens in Pierre, S.D., as the South Dakota Election Board discusses a proposal to use federal money to set up satellite v

    So Semans’ and his colleagues negotiated with county commissioners, and ultimately convinced them to open up satellite voting offices on Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian reservations. 

    It was a costly battle, he said, and in order to fund it, a local politician who consults with Four Directions sold off some of his cattle. Semans laughs uproariously at the memory.

    “Fighting for the right to vote, we gotta send a white guy to sell his cows so we can get more money to keep going!” he said.

    Language barriers

    Despite many similar lawsuits across the U.S., states and counties continue to find creative ways to discourage Indians and other minorities from voting, said Laughlin McDonald, a lawyer with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project who has argued many cases on behalf of Native Americans – most recently, Navajo Indians in San Juan County, Utah.

    “Voting in that county was typically done in polling places on the Navajo reservation, but in 2014, the county shut down the polling places and adopted a system of mail-in voting,” said McDonald. “It would have taken Native voters four, five, even six hours to drive to the county seat.”

    Furthermore, the VRA requires San Juan County, among other localities, to provide assistance to Navajos and other minorities who aren’t fluent in English.

    “But in San Juan County, the mailing ballots are written only in English, and they don’t provide any way to explain those ballots to Indian voters,” said McDonald.  

    The county election commission refused requests to abolish the mail-in system, so the ACLU, the Navajo Human Rights Commission and eleven Navajo tribal members filed suit

    Meanwhile, in Washington, lawmakers have introduced two separate bills that would protect minorities from discriminatory election procedures, but both are stalled, to McDonald’s dismay. 

    “Congress needs to act,” said McDonald.  “If you don’t participate in the political process you are not only denied the benefits of government but you become the victims of government.”

    You May Like

    Video For Many US Veterans, the Vietnam War Continues

    More than 40 years after it ended, war in Vietnam and America’s role in it continue to provoke bitter debate, especially among those who fought in it

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    100 immigrants graduated Friday as US citizens in New York, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in cities across country

    Family's Fight Pays Off With Arlington Cemetery Burial Rights for WASPs

    Policy that allowed the Women Airforce Service Pilots veterans to receive burial rites at Arlington had been revoked in 2015

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora