NAVRC: Analyzing the State of Native American Voting

Cover of the report Obstacles at Every Turn from the Native American Rights Fund

History of Native American Voting Rights

American democracy was built and predicated on the foundation of self-government. Hence, the authority of government in a democratic state is designed to be representative of the general will of the people. This “will” is then reaffirmed through periodic electoral processes which determine the legislation, electorates, and decisions that our government makes in order to ensure equitable outcomes for all citizens. 

However, this isn’t always the case. In the US, there have been historical patterns of discriminatory efforts to prevent eligible voters from exercising their inalienable right to vote. For Native Americans in particular, this happens to be the case. Unfortunately, there’s a very rich history of voter suppression involving Native American communities from local to federal electoral processes. 

In 1866, the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution, granting citizenship to all individuals born within the territorial limits of the United States. Except, this didn’t apply to Americans who resided on Indian reservations. In fact, Indigenous communities were physically isolated and their voices were silenced as a direct consequence of exclusive policy-making. The Indigenous weren’t recognized as US citizens until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. Nevertheless, they didn’t actually benefit from some of the basic privileges of American citizenship, like the right to vote. Although the 15th amendment reconciled that a citizen’s right to vote couldn’t be denied on the account of race, the right to vote remained governed by state law, and many state authorities found other reasons to retract their legal voting status. For example, some states required poll taxes and others alluded to property tax as voting mandates. 

It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the federal government officially outlawed these exclusionary practices:

SEC. 2. No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, or practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.  

In recent years, the right to vote continues to be challenged through restrictive voting laws and the adoption of discriminatory practices that have either dismissed, ignored, or targeted the Native American population directly. 

In 2013, the Supreme Court removed federal voting protections which required that “preclearance” states (states with histories of discriminatory voting practices) consult with the DOJ to get approval before enacting any new legislation concerning voting. At the time, there were nine states which were under the discretion of this policy, several of which have some of the larger Indigenous populations: Arizona, Alaska, South Dakota. Since then, a number of state legislatures have passed bills which have imposed new challenges to the Native American community. Some of these challenges most notably include  strict voter ID requirements and failure to comply with the National Voter Registration Act (some even challenged the constitutionality of the Act), which was passed to increase voting opportunities for all US citizens. *** bipartisan legislation —> not anymore

Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC)

Since 1970, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has provided legal resources and assistance to tribal communities, organizations, and individuals across the United States. NARF is a non-profit organization which has applied the unique set of “Indian law” to a wide variety of cases which have included advancements in areas of tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, voting rights, natural resource protection, and Indian education. 

In 2015, NARF decided to shift their focus from defense to offense and founded the Native American Rights Coalition (NAVRC). The alliance brought together organizations, academia, and activists across the states with the desire to ensure equal opportunities for tribal communities. The project’s vision is clearly defined in their mission statement: “to facilitate collaboration among Coalition members and to coordinate efforts at overcoming the many barriers Native Americans face in registering to vote, casting their ballot, and having an equal voice in elections.” 

“Obstacles at Every Turn” 

Over the past five years (2016-2020), NAVRC conducted a series of multi-state studies, ranging from surveys to field hearings, in order to discover the state of Native American voting and identify barriers that Native Americans face in voting processes such as registration and ballot casting. Their research has had a profound impact on the discussion of voter suppression in the US, and has revealed incredible insight into the way that many Native Americans perceive voting processes. In 2020, NAVRC compiled their extensive research into a 175 report of which they (1) document mounting evidence of voter suppression and (2) provide in-depth analysis of the “obstacles at every turn” that Native Americans face while participating in US electoral processes today. 

Survey Results

In 2016, NAVRC sent out a survey to both on-reservation and off-reservation Native Americans in Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Nevada. The data collected clearly indicates a variety of issues that need to be addressed. Listed below are some of the key findings:

  • Trust in US government
    • Low trust levels in local governments: 19% in New Mexico, 16% in Arizona, 11% in Nevada, 5% in South Dakota
    • Low trust levels in mail-in voting
  • Most common reasons for not being registered
    • #1 cited reason was not knowing where or how to register
    • #2 cited reason was missing the deadline 
  • Main issues affecting voter turnout
    • Travel distances — 27% of those in Nevada and 29% of those in South Dakota mentioned extreme travel conditions to closest polling location
    • Voter ID requirements

Field Hearings 

As a follow-up to their data acquisition, NAVRC held nine field hearings across the country in which more than 120 witnesses testified from dozens of tribes. These extensive personal accounts documented evidence of presiding discrimination as well as things that worked well, allowing NAVRC to take clear stances on public policies. 

In one of these hearings in Milwaukee, Chairman Vinton Hawley of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe pointed out their tribe’s success in filing litigation against the state of Nevada for not providing adequate polling locations near their reservations. In prior elections, members of Hawley’s tribe once had to travel approximately 96 miles round-trip to arrive at the closest location available for voter registration and early voting. For election day voting, the closest site was around 32 miles round-trip. Their case didn’t even need a ruling — US District Judge Miranda Du determined that their case would likely succeed and awarded them various on-reservation polling locations. 

More than a Vote  

At the end of the day, NAVRC’s findings are more important than just political insight. In recent time, we have seen the rise of various social and multi-racial movements across the country which have heightened the pressure on legislators to ensure fair political access for all US citizens. Still, however, this isn’t really enough to make significant institutional change. For Native Americans, the only way to reclaim communal power is through participation and increased transparency in these political processes. As such, we have seen a shift of focus towards voter awareness in notable political campaigns like the 2020 Presidential Election. 

The future state of tribal communities and the advancement of issues like tribal sovereignty, self-determination, land rights, health care, etc., is undoubtedly dependent on the removal of voting barriers and the establishment of a fair, democratic framework with increased political participation.