History of the Native American Vote (1800's-Present)
The right to vote is the foundation of democratic government; yet Native Americans
have faced a prolonged battle to gain the franchise on a footing equal to that of whites.
- The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.”
– The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 barred states from limiting voting on account of race, so states had to find other ways to limit Indian voting.
- McKay v. Campbell: Federal court decision ruled the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t apply to Indians who were not “born subject to U.S. government jurisdiction.” Since citizenship is one of the criteria for voting, this ruling effectively precluded all Indians from voting.
- John Elk, an Indian who took up residence among non-Indians, attempted to vote in Nebraska. He was denied based on the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled John Elk was not a citizen within the meaning of general opinions that require “proof of fitness for civilization.” That John Elk had completely surrendered to the jurisdiction of the U.S. had no relevance since the U.S. government had not accepted his surrender by issuing a formal naturalization.
– Supreme Court declared all reservation Indians residents of their states. Utah statute said Indians living on reservation did not qualify as residents of the state and thus disenfranchised Indians until 1957 when the Supreme Court threatened them and Utah finally abolished the statue.
- Elk v. Wilkins: The Supreme Court ruled John Elk was not a citizen within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court cited 12 treaties, 4 judicial decisions, 4 statutes, and 8 attorney general opinions that require “proof of fitness for civilization’. That John Elk had completely surrendered to the jurisdiction of the U.S. and had severed his tribal relations had no relevance since the U.S. government had not accepted his surrender by issuing a formal naturalization.
- Opsahl v. Johnson: Minnesota Supreme Court denied Indians the right to vote citing the reasoning of the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia decision that Indians were ‘under a sort of guardianship of the federal government with which the state cannot interfere”.
– Indian Citizenship Act: Native Americans granted citizenship and with it the right to vote. However, voting procedures and eligibility requirements are governed by state law. Thus, limitations of Indian voting were written into a number of state constitutions and state laws.
Note: Nearly two-thirds of the Indians of the United States had acquired citizenship in one way or another prior to 1924.
1965 - Voting Rights Act was passed.
Utah disenfranchised Indian voters by claiming that Indians residing on reservations did not qualify as residents of the state, despite an 1881 Supreme Court decision that declared all reservation Indians residents of their state.
Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Washington prohibited “Indians not taxed” from voting as late as 1968, even though they granted the franchise to whites who were not taxed.
California, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin required that voters be “civilized.” North Dakota’s constitution contained a provision that extended the franchise only to “civilized person of Indian descent who shall have severed their tribal relations.” The Minnesota Supreme Court defined its constitutional provision of “civilized” Indians as those who take up their “abode outside the reservations and there pursuing the customs and habits of civilization.”
This act prohibits any voting law or practice that results in discrimination on the basis of race, color or language
Note: There have been at least seventy-four voting rights cases based on the Voting Rights Act and/or the Equal Protection Clause since the law was passed.
- Even today, there continue to be obstacles to Indians voting such as, vote dilution-
a process whereby election laws or practices diminish the voting strength of a group. In 2004 a Federal court ruled that South Dakota violated the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act when it approved a statewide redistricting plan in 2001 that diluted
the voting power of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations. The new district map placed 90% of Native Americans into one district. If the state had drawn districts more fairly, Native Americans would have been the majority in two districts instead of one.
2004 Restrictive ID requirements
- The ACLU of Minnesota (ACLU-MN), the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Bonnie Dorr-Charwood, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibe, and Richard Smith, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed a Petition in Federal District Court against Minnesota Secretary of State Kiffmeyer for failing to conform to Minnesota election law with federal law, including the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) and the Fourteenth Amendment right to Equal Protection.
Below are links to several documents relating to the lawsuit mentioned in the above paragraphs:
Melanie Letter to SoS
MN Lawsuit Hearing
MN Lawsuit Victory
MN Voter ID lawsuit filed
Order broadens use of Indian IDs
MN Lawsuit filed
ACLU Election Letter to SoS
Importance of the Native Vote
Throughout the 1800’s, without a delegation in Congress and without the right to vote, Tribes and individual
Native Americans had no voice with which to resist federal policies of allotment and forced assimilation, which
took millions of acres of our reservation homelands, and took Indian children from their parents and placed
them in boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their native language or practice their culture.
Elected officials at the local, state and national level make decisions on issues that affect our tribes, our
people, and our future. Some of the issues are as follows:
According to a study conducted in 2003, Native Americans and Alaska natives face a diabetes
rate, which is 249 percent higher than average, and a tuberculosis rate 533 percent higher. The average life
expectancy for Native Americans is 55 years, 17 years less than the national average. Yet, in spite of the
disproportionate health care needs, the per capita expenditure for Native Americans is only one-third of the
average annual expenditure for medical assistance, and is even less than the per capita health expenditure
for federal prisoners.
Bureau of Indian Affairs operated schools are appropriated approximately $3,000 per student
annually, which is less than half of what public schools receive. On average only 50% of Indian students graduate
from high school.
Tribes provide law enforcement to protect the public safety and homeland security for
their people without adequate funding from the federal or state government.
40% of the homes in tribal communities are overcrowded and are in need of repairs plus there is
shortage of housing on many reservations.
Other areas affected by politics and our elected leaders in Congress and the State Legislature include: economic
growth, job creation, infrastructure needs on reservations, tribal gaming, tribal sovereignty, trust reform,
protecting the environment and energy development.
There are 4.5 million Native Americans nationwide; nearly 3 million are eligible voters. Nationally, Indians make
up just 1.4 percent of the voting age population. There are approximately 55,000 eligible Native American voters
residing in Minnesota alone. As demonstrated by our Native vote turnout in 2004 and 2006, it is clear that the
Native vote will continue to be a strong voice in future elections at the local, state and national level.
By being active participants in the electoral process, we can protect our right to quality health care and
education, and the right to fully govern our lands.