A call for Obama officials to improve Native voting rights

WASHINGTON – Voter rights advocates are calling on the Obama administration’s Justice Department to improve the system for Native Americans.

The calls have grown louder since the release of a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which concludes that American Indians continue to face discriminatory policies and actions that deny them their constitutional right to vote.

The report, titled “Voting Rights in Indian Country,” provides a historical overview of systemic discrimination against American Indians that has limited their ability to participate in local, state and national elections.

It also highlights ACLU-backed lawsuits challenging unlawful election practices on behalf of Native Americans in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Danna Jackson, a tribal law expert with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, sees the report as a call to action.

“As this report indicates, much work needs to be done to preserve the heralded principal of ‘one person one vote’ in Indian country, despite great efforts by advocates,” said Jackson, who authored the 2004 policy manual “Eighty Years of Indian Voting: A Call to Protect Indian Voting Rights.”

Jackson believes now is the time for the Department of Justice to step up its efforts, particularly by reviewing changes to election law and enhancing minority voting rights.

She said many Indian voter rights advocates are especially hopeful for positive changes given the recent confirmation of Thomas E. Perez to serve as the assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Perez previously served with the division as deputy assistant attorney general and was once a special counsel to the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Some Republicans have opposed Perez due to his disagreement with English-only statutes.

Jackson said Indian voter rights advocates want Perez to appropriately enforce the Voting Rights Act and step up the education process many say is needed in minority areas.

Daniel McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, agreed that now may be a time of change in terms of election law affecting Indians and the Department of Justice.

He said the department didn’t file as many Indian voting rights suits as some would have liked during the Bush administration. Plus, DoJ leadership under President George W. Bush was overtly hostile on issues affecting minority voters, according to McCool.

“I think the DoJ under Obama will be more proactive,” said McCool, who co-authored the 2007 book “Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote.”

McCool said many in his field were waiting to see what happened in the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District case, which was a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The case was decided in late June, with an 8-1 vote in favor of upholding the section.

Section 5 freezes election practices or procedures in certain states until the new procedures have been subjected to review, either after an administrative review by the U.S. attorney general, or after a lawsuit before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The next big challenge will be the redistricting that will take place following the 2010 census,” McCool said.

“As a result of population changes documented in the Census, there will be numerous changes to districts and other political jurisdictions. There is a significant probability that these changes will provoke challenges under both Section 2 and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

Tribal leaders also have a role in enhancing Indian voter rights, according to advocates.

“It is difficult for Native leaders to demand a true ‘government-to-government’ relationship unless they have the power of the Indian vote backing them up,” Jackson said.

“Despite barriers at the polls that unfortunately continue to exist, Native leaders need to press upon their membership the importance of fully participating in the voting process. As always, knowledge is power.”

McCool said the most important thing Indian country leaders can do in the voting rights arena is to document all election law changes: Attend meetings, take notes, survey local media, and read all local and state government documents regarding changes in election laws.

“Any evidence of discrimination, racial polarization, or efforts to reduce the voting power of American Indians should be carefully documented.”