ACLU Alleges Widespread Voting Rights Problems In Native Communities

In its new report entitled "Voting Rights In Indian Country", the American Civil Liberties Union states that Native Americans continue to face a a variety of discriminatory election practices, including: at large elections; redistricting plans that diluted Native American voting strength; the failure to comply with one person, one vote; unfounded allegations of election fraud on Indian reservations; discriminatory voter registration procedures; onerous identification requirements for voting; the lack of minority language assistance in voting; and the refusal to comply with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  The report's findings are based on the ACLU's investigations conducted for voting rights litigation cases in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

The report recounts a litany of abuses endured by Native communities throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, and draws a line of impact to the present day.

One consequence is a depressed socio-economic status that limits the ability of tribal members to participate effectively in local, state, and national elections and to enforce the anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws protecting minority voting rights. Voting is significantly polarized along racial lines, and little meaningful interaction exists between the Indian and non-Indian communities, especially in the towns and communities that border the reservations. This lack of interaction and access to the majority community makes it very difficult for Indians to elect candidates of their choice to office in jurisdictions in which they are a numerical minority.

Indian political participation is further diminished by the disproportionate number of tribal members disfranchised for commission of criminal offenses. There is a pattern of racial profiling of Indians by law enforcement officers, the targeting of Indians for prosecution of serious crimes, and the imposition of lengthier prison sentences upon Indian defendants. These injustices result in the higher incarceration of Indians and dilute the overall voting strength of Indian communities.

Federal Court Upholds Native American Voting Rights In South Dakota Lawsuit

On December 16, 2008, a federal appeals affirmed a decision protecting the rights of Native American voters in Martin, South Dakota. Siding with the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eight Circuit ordered local officials to correct violations of the Voting Rights Act  that prevented Native Americans from having an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.

According to the ACLU Voting Rights Project, this was a tremendous victory for the people of Martin, South Dakota, who, according to attorneys working on the case, have endured a long, hard struggle for equality at the voting booth. Undoubtedly, this ruling will provide Indian voters with the right to have an equal say in choosing their government.

In terms of background, the ACLU brought the lawsuit mid-2002 on behalf of two Native American voters who said that the redistricting plan adopted by the city that year had the purpose and effect of diluting Native American voting strength. Because the Native American population made up approximately 45 percent of the city's population, it would have been unable to elect any candidates of their choice to the city council because the redistricting plan ensured that white voters controlled all three city council wards.

The district court initially ruled in the city's favor in March 2005. The Native American plaintiffs appealed, and on May 5, 2006, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eighth Circuit reversed the lower court's decision, sending the case back to the district court.

In December 2006, the district court not only ordered a "full and complete remedy" for the plaintiffs, but also affirmed many of the factual claims of voting discrimination that the voters had described in their original lawsuit, including the fact that the city's redistricting plan unlawfully dilutes Native American voting strength. The ruling from December 16th upholds that decision, as well as the adoption of voting system proposed by the plaintiffs.

This decision will undoubtedly provide Native Americans with an equal voice in the selection of city officials. The ruling is also an important reminder that the Voting Rights Act remains a valuable tool to guard against discrimination in the electoral process.

To view the decision, please click here.