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N.D. Decision Highlights Failure to Protect Native Voting Rights

Last week, Judge Daniel L. Hovland of the United States District Court for North Dakota issued a preliminary injunction against North Dakota’s strict voter identification-card law, which made it difficult and sometimes impossible for some Native Americans on rural reservations to cast ballots. This victory is an important one to Native voters, but also highlights the lack of enforcement by the Department of Justice of the Voting Rights Act in Indian country.

The lawsuit in North Dakota was brought by individual Native people and the Native American Rights Fund. We greatly appreciate these strong advocates, but there simply are not enough non-profit resources to address the widespread voter discrimination on Indian reservations. It is the responsibility of the Department of Justice to enforce violations of the Voting Rights Act, and yet the Department has not brought a Section 2 lawsuit on behalf of American Indian and Alaska Native voters since 2000 when Bill Clinton was President. The National Congress of American Indians recently passed a resolution calling on the Department of Justice to take action to enforce the Voting Rights Act in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

American Indian and Alaska Native populations have historically suffered discrimination when voting, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, left Native voters even more vulnerable to discrimination. Native voters often encounter language barriers, polling closures, changes in voter identification laws, purging voter rolls, and intimidation and animosity in reservation border towns that disenfranchise Native voters. It is also common for Native voters to be assigned to polling places that are unreasonably far away and require significant travel time and expense. For example, residents of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada must drive 200 miles roundtrip to the closest polling location, while small towns of primarily non-Indian voters like Wells, Nevada have two polling places. These distances also inhibit voter registration and early voting.

Some Native governments and individual members have filed their own challenges under the Voting Rights Act, and courts have invariably found widespread patterns of discrimination against Native voters. But resources for this type of costly litigation are limited. Earlier this year, NCAI met directly with Attorney General Lynch to raise these concerns. We greatly appreciate efforts to address these issues through legislation, like the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Native American Voting Rights Act, but legislative proposals are not enough. We need federal enforcement action under existing law.

The election is approaching and Native voters will be disenfranchised. The Voting Rights Act prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups. Failure to provide polling places on Indian reservations fits easily into that standard. Equal access to voting is not only a matter of fairness, but it is a fundamental civil right afforded to all citizens, including American Indians and Native Alaskans. DOJ needs to use the tools it has and enforce the Voting Rights Act in Indian Country immediately. 

Brian Cladoosby is the president of the National Congress of American Indians.