What You Should Know About Native American Voter Suppression


Native American woman standing while holding an infant child.

Intro

Native Americans have had a long history of voter suppression that is often overshadowed by other voter suppression issues. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the trauma and discrimination Native Americans have faced and explore the issues that still need to be remedied today.

When did Native Americans get the right to vote?

Native Americans were granted the right to vote in 1924 but were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1965. The Indian Citizenship Act –also known as the Snyder Act— was passed in 1924 granting the right to full citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. However, gaining the right to vote through citizenship and being able to exercise that right to vote are two different things in America. Although legally Native Americans were granted access to the ballot through the Indian Citizenship Act, true enfranchisement did not come for many years. Racism, discrimination, and xenophobia all contributed to the long battle Native Americans were forced to endure until the 1960s for the right to vote. 

The Indian Citizenship Act was governed by State law. This means that the decision to “allow” Native Americans access to the ballot was up to the individual states and their own laws and constitutions. As a result, Native Americans had to fight for voting rights on a state-by-state basis. In 1962, Utah was the last state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native people. Yet still, Native Americans were prevented from voting through suppression tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation, all of which were also used against black people. It was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally helped to enforce voting rights that the Indian Citizenship Act had granted to Native Americans over 40 years prior. (Source: History.com)

Did Native Americans have to give up their land in order to vote?

Yes, in some cases, before legal citizenship or the right to vote were guaranteed by law, Native Americans were granted citizenship in exchange for their land. Before the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, there was the Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act was passed as a way to get Native Americans to assimilate into traditional, popular American culture. The Dawes Act “gave American citizenship to all Native Americans who accepted individual land grants under the provisions of statutes and treaties.” (Source: Constitution Center) It divided tribal lands into individual plots and forced Native Americans to accept these allotments as a stepping stone to U.S. citizenship.

The Dawes Act essentially forced Native Americans to assimilate into U.S. culture by giving up cultural practices, including clothing, eating, and living conditions, as well as land. It also implemented “Indian Schools” that taught Native American children how to assimilate to the social customs of white people. It required Native American communities to choose whether they wanted enfranchisement or self-government. This resulted in the destruction of traditional Native American culture and most of their tribal land. (Source: Library of Congress)

By the early 1900s more than half of Native Americans in the country had become U.S. citizens. But they’d done it at a huge sacrifice that allowed the US government to acquire at least 90 million acres through treaties, allotments or forced statutes.

The Indian Citizenship Act (aka Snyder Act) was passed in 1924, nearly four decades after the Dawes Act. The Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Native Americans born within the United States and it provided that their citizen rights shall not affect their rights to tribal or other property. (Source: National Archives)

What triggered the enactment of the Indian Citizenship Act?

Throughout history, the American government used many tactics to obtain sacred tribal land and force Native Americans to assimilate into mainstream culture and the ways of the U.S. Government. But Native Americans were self-governing long before the U.S. Government was established. Thus, they wanted to maintain their own ways of culture and governance, so they fought to maintain their sovereignty. (Source: Library of Congress)

The American government and white citizens had assumptions that the Native inhabitants were savages and needed guidance. Their beliefs led to constant interference of Native American traditions, cultural practices and self-governance that had been in place for many years before white people settled in America. “Many government officials felt that Native Americans should be assimilated into America’s mainstream culture before they became enfranchised.” (Source: Library of Congress) This led to the eventual need for Native Americans to obtain citizenship, so they could vote on laws and be involved in policy making that would influence the ways in which they existed on the land they inhabited.

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 came about because of these frustrations and the “clash of civilizations” that occurred. To maintain their “sovereignty,” an agreement had to be made where the resulting American legislation and policies would be in accordance with the many years of cultural practices that were already established by Native Americans.

What does sovereign mean?

Sovereign is defined as having “supreme power or authority, or the authority of a state to govern itself or another state, a self-governing state.”

What did sovereignty mean for Native Americans?

Sovereignty for Native Americans meant the ability to exist in America on their own terms. For many years, wanting to be sovereign was a priority to Native Americans. Maintaining their own government and land ties was an essential practice for the Native American community to be free from American intervention and continue traditional and cultural practices without interference.

In some cases, before legal citizenship or the right to vote were guaranteed by law, Native Americans were granted citizenship in exchange for their land. This was one of the many ways in which the U.S. government attempted to not only obtain tribal land but also force Native Americans to assimilate into American culture and establish control over practices they deemed “savage and unamerican.” For example, a 1855 treaty with Wyandot Indians stated that the “tribe shall be dissolved and terminated” in exchange for becoming “citizens of the United States.” (Source: Washington Post). As a result, nearly 50 years later, “more than half of Native Americans in the country had become U.S. citizens, but they’d done it at a huge sacrifice, having given up at least 90 million acres through treaties, allotments or forced statutes.” (Source: Jim Crow, Indian Style)

The Indian Citizenship Act was passed in an effort to remedy this and give Native Americans more direct impact on legislation that would govern the ways in which they existed within America. The Act granted them access to the rights guaranteed to all Americans, most of all, the right to the ballot which they hoped would help in their fight to maintain self-governance.

Did Blacks & Native Americans get the right to vote at the same time?

No, Black Americans and Native Americans did not obtain the right to vote at the same time. When Black Americans gained the right to vote with the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1870, the government specifically interpreted the law so it did not apply to Native people. 

The assumption was that because Black Americans were former slaves, they had more experience and enough understanding assimilating into American culture, Native Americans at the time were still seen as savages, self-governing themselves in ways abnormal to the American elite. Thus, Native Americans were not included in the interpretation of the 15th Amendment that granted citizenship and voting rights to all U.S. citizens regardless of race.  

More than 50 years after the passing of the 15th Amendment, it was the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that granted voting rights to Native Americans. However, similar to Black citizens, their right to vote was not guaranteed until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act outlawed racially discriminatory voting practices that had prevented Native Americans and Blacks from exercising their voting rights.

How was Native American voter suppression different from Black American voter suppression?

When the Indian Citizenship Act passed in 1924, white people continued using voter suppression tactics to prevent Native Americans from voting. Historians called this “Jim Crow, Indian-Style.” (Source: Washington Post) Thus, Native American voter suppression is very similar to the voter suppression Black Americans have faced for years. Both populations were subjected to poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white rage, and many other racial discrimination tactics throughout the years.

While many similarities can be found in the journey towards enfranchisement for both Black Americans and Native Americans, one major difference remains: Native Americans were the only people forced to give up their culture to participate in American democracy. For example, Minnesota had a “cultural purity test.” it prevented Native Americans from voting unless they “adopted the language, customs, and habits of civilization.” (Source: Washington Post) The process of “forced assimilation” has stripped Native Americans of much of their cultural heritage forcing them to give up much of their history to cast their ballot.

Woman sitting on the grass reading with a young girl.

Can Native Americans Vote if They Live on a Reservation?

Yes, Native Americans can vote if they live on a reservation. However, reservations do not have formal U.S. addresses which unfortunately makes it harder for them to receive mail, and send mail back in a timely manner, especially absentee ballots. They are often turned away at the polls for not having addresses on their voter IDs that align with with those on registration lists. In addition to this, when the precincts designated to these populations don’t align with their traditional tribal houses where they vote in tribal elections, ballots are cast away by the thousands.

Why Is Voter Turnout Low Among Native Americans?

The legacy of being disenfranchised for so long continues to persist. Years of exploitation, discrimination, and suppression have resulted in a distrust in government and democracy and a lower voter turnout within Native American communities. There are an estimated 1 million American Indians not registered to vote. And elders within this community continue to tell younger voters not to vote because of their past experiences with humiliation and cultural assimilation. While advocates for Native American voting rights are doing the best they can to fight against this injustice, the limits to efficient internet access, transportation, and cultural differences are obstacles to ensuring that every vote is counted in our democracy. (Source: Jim Crow, Indian Style)

What types of Voter Suppression Do Native Americans Face Today?

Advocates like Attorney Jacqueline De León see firsthand how Native Americans “face really unreasonable obstacles when it comes to voting.” According to a June 2020 report from the Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC), they continue to experience widespread disenfranchisement. Examples of voter suppression that Native Americans experience today involves issues such as “not having the required voter ID, lack of traditional mailing addresses, and unequal access to in-person voting.” (Source: High Country News)

1. Reservation Addresses Impact Voting by Mail Access for Native American Voters

Many homes on Native American reservations don’t have formal addresses where they can receive mail. And, in some areas, they can’t walk to their mailbox like average citizens do because they don’t have home delivery. In addition, reservations are often hours from a post office, which makes it more difficult to not only receive mail but also send mail. (Source: Time)

Thus, voting by mail, which was a popular and safe option offered during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, disproportionately impacted Native American communities. Address and mailing issues gave Native Americans fewer days to cast their ballot compared to other voters. In 2020, one advocacy group reported that members of the Navajo Nation had 40 to 70% fewer days to cast their ballots after they received them, compared to other non-Indian Arizona voters. Non-Indian voters had about 25 days to “consider, cast and return” ballots, compared to only 15 days for Navajo Nation voters. (Source: Four Directions) Advocates in support of increasing Native American voter turnout proposed extending the mail-in deadline for communities living on reservations to give residents more time to obtain and return ballots, thus ensuring more informed voters.

2. Out-of-Precinct Ballots Impact Native American Voters

Voting precincts don’t usually match with tribal lands and their traditional tribal house where tribal elections take place. This causes a lot of confusion for Native American voters as to which precinct they should vote in. This barrier allows for poll workers to turn voters away for being at the wrong precinct without knowledge of an appropriate destination. And it results in many ballots that are cast “out-of-precinct” to be thrown out. This is a significant issue that disproportionately impacts Native Americans and their ability to register and participate in elections.

3. Long Distance Polling Places Impact Native American Voters

As mentioned above, polling places are often created without considering Native American communities and tribes. For example, in 2018, a Native American tribe in Arizona had to drive more than 280 miles each way to their designated polling place. Others had to travel 100 miles just to vote. (Source: FastCompany)

4. Formal Identification Issues Impact Native American Voters

Many reservation residents do not have a need for a state ID and instead have tribal identification cards. Unfortunately, individuals who use tribal identification cards face problems when attempting to cast their vote because the address on their ID cards don’t match with those on voter registration lists. This causes many to be turned away, especially when cultural awareness or sensitivity training has not occurred for election volunteers. As a result, advocates are fighting to get poll workers trained about tribal IDs so they don’t turn away eligible NA voters from the polls. (Source: Time)

5. Voter Registration Access Impacts Native American Voters

As discussed above, reservation territories typically don’t have street names and house addresses. The unaddressed territory is a complex issue that affects residents’ ability to access services. For example, the ability to register to vote. (Google Plus Codes Case Study: Rural Utah Project)

Initiatives like the Rural Utah Project are now able to give residents on reservations more formal addresses using Open Location Codes. Google created Open Location Codes, more commonly referred to as Google Plus Codes, that can identify any area on the Earth using latitude and longitude coordinates. Having “formal addresses” helps improve access for reservation residents to many services such as emergency assistance, social services and deliveries including mail.  

What are Google Plus Codes?

Google Plus Codes create street addresses for people without them. These addresses are displayed as a small set of numbers and letters instead of street names. (Google Plus Codes)

Google Plus Codes allow for delivery to addresses which increases the probability of mail in ballots being sent and also allows for voters to have “formal addresses” when attempting to vote in person. However, the Google Plus Codes are not a complete solution because issues such as delivery timeliness still affect the confidence and ability in being able to return ballots by mail.

Benefits of Google Plus Codes

Plus Codes allow people to receive mail deliveries and help others to identify them or find their location. This is particularly useful for reservation residents when trying to vote at the polls. In addition, Plus Codes are available offline so you do not have to be connected to the internet to have or use one and they are free and open to the public. These benefits are especially essential in increasing voter turnout for Native American communities. (Google Plus Codes Case Study: Rural Utah Project)

Problems that continue to persist with registering Native American voters

While Plus Codes have been beneficial in rectifying voting issues, they do not address the entire issue of delivery nor the access to the internet that many rely on to register to vote from home. According to the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, “it sounds great, but the issue is that more than half the homes in the nation don’t have access to the internet.” (Source: Time). Even with the ability to access the codes offline, registering to vote is still difficult because this process actually requires internet access and without volunteers entering into the communities to aid in the process, the number of voters remains consistently low.

How are Advocates Fighting Against Native American Voter Suppression Today?

After years of continuous efforts to suppress Native American votes, leaders and community members are taking steps to combat this process and ensure that every Native American has access to the ballot. Multiple court cases are hoping to:

  • expand the time allowed for Native Americans to mail-in their ballots, 
  • allow ballot collection and drop-off, and 
  • improve out-of-precinct voting. 

Advocates are also going into these communities to help register voters and help to make voting plans. (Source: Time)

Male volunteer standing with voter in a doorway with text that says, "What can you do to fight against voter suppression of Native Americans?"

What Can You Do to Fight Against Voter Suppression of Native Americans?

1. Awareness

Bring awareness to this issue on both local and national levels. You can:

  • Interact with and sharing social media posts expressing concern or information on voter suppression issues that disproportionately impact Native American voters.
  • Support pending legislation and lawsuits in favor of resolving voter suppression issues.
  • Support organizations that advocate for voting rights, such as the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, a which is a nonpartisan organization comprised of voting rights advocates. You can support them by sharing their social media posts, donating and volunteering.

2. Volunteer

Volunteer to help register Native Americans to vote! Whether online or in your own community, helping to register voters is one of the easiest steps to increasing voter turnout in upcoming elections.

3. Advocate

Advocate on behalf of the Native American community and their legal cases.

  • Stay up to date on laws that affect Native American voting rights. Contact your senators and representatives to let them know where you stand on these issues.
  • Show support for and spread the word about the Voting Rights Advancement Act (aka the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020) that is currently pending in Congress. And the Native American Voting Rights Act that advocates are trying to advance to Congress.
  • In addition to the federal legislation mentioned above, advocate for your State to pass laws that help eliminate voter suppression of Native Americans. For example, in 2019 the State of Washington passed their own Native American Voting Rights Act, which makes registration easier for Native voters. (Source: High Country News)

4. Educate

Continue to educate yourself and others about voting issues that affect Native Americans. Share literature and educational materials such as this blog post. Or this Native American Voter Guide, which answers questions individuals may have about the voting process, especially members of this community that is directly impacted.

Summary

The biggest barrier to Native Americans being able to exercise their right to vote is not having to give up their cultural heritage to participate in America’s democracy. After suffering for years for the ability to have a say in policies and legislation that will shape their lives, Native Americans and advocates for their voting rights are bringing awareness to the issues they face and fighting against this injustice in many ways. But there is still much more to be done to protect Native American voting rights.

Author

  • I'm a college student interested in law, politics and history. I love learning about the ways different demographics, such as black people and women, have overcome systemic injustices. I hope to have a career that allows me to contribute to the liberation and advancement of my community.

Tytiana Curtain

I'm a college student interested in law, politics and history. I love learning about the ways different demographics, such as black people and women, have overcome systemic injustices. I hope to have a career that allows me to contribute to the liberation and advancement of my community.

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