Sections of the Voting Rights Act will soon need reauthorization

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WASHINGTON -- The Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965, will celebrate its 41st anniversary on Aug. 7; yet some provisions of the act, which supporters argue have brought American Indians into the political arena, are due to expire in 2007.

American Indian and non-Indian organizations are in the midst of compiling and reporting research that shows the VRA -- with some permanent provisions and some temporary -- has made a difference to many minorities and furthers the argument that the VRA is still needed in its entirety.

Section 5 of the act, renewed several times, requires nine states and portion of seven states to submit changes that affect voting in any way to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval, or pre-clearance, as it is referred. That section is due to expire in 2007. Section 5 was last renewed by Congress for a term of 25 years, and that is the recommendation again.

Section 203, which requires assistance for limited-English speakers at the polls, and Sections 6 -- 9, which authorize the federal government to monitor elections, are all set to expire.

The American Civil Liberties Union submitted a comprehensive report on how the VRA affects Indian country. The states that benefited the most from the VRA were Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. In each state, litigation or the threat of litigation mitigated state voting legislation that would have adversely impacted American Indian residents.

"By tearing down the barriers to equal opportunity for racial and language minorities in voting, the Act removed the political mechanism that was essential to maintaining the legal structure of segregation. As the Supreme Court has said, the equal right to vote is fundamental because it is preservative of all rights," the report stated.

The report used selected documentation from trial transcripts to support the claim that the VRA is important to Indian country. In other parts of the country, specifically Southern states, litigation and voting rights changes have occurred since the VRA's beginning in 1965. It hasn't been until recently that Indian country has benefited from the VRA.

Had it not been for the VRA, the report asserts, American Indians in some states would not have the representation they prefer; yet there is more work to do and litigation is still a necessary tool in keeping the states in line.

Although the act eradicated at-large voting, just after it was signed some states changed some districts to at-large voting only to face legal action. At-large representation was ended early on in the act's life in the South, but in Indian country only just recently has at-large selection of representatives been stopped.

Only one lawsuit was filed between 1974 and 1990 in Indian country. That lawsuit challenged the Montana at-large elections as diluting American Indian voting strength, despite the presence of seven reservations and a significant American Indian population. American Indians make up eight percent of Montana's population.

Other lawsuits filed in Montana resulted in the election of eight American Indians to the state Legislature, more American Indian lawmakers than any other state. Not all the lawsuits in Montana went to court.

The 1992 redistricting plan in Montana was challenged four years later. The redistricting commission, made up of both political parties, did not have any American Indian representation, but tribes submitted a plan that they thought would be fair. The commission rejected the plan and ended up in court in 1996. It was redrawn, but not to the full satisfaction of the tribes.

In 2000, the commission included one American Indian and the result was the creation of 100 house districts, six of which were majority American Indian; and 50 Senate districts, three of which were majority American Indian, the report noted.

South Dakota, with a larger American Indian population and smaller overall population than Montana, has only four American Indians in the state Legislature. Changes to redistricting after the state was found in violation of the VRA resulted in a split district that may allow American Indian voters to elect up to three more of their preferred candidates.

South Dakota is the only state in the Plains and Mountain states required by the VRA to submit any changes in voting laws or rules to the Justice Department for pre-clearance. Two of its counties, Todd and Shannon, home to the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations respectively, are listed under Section 5.

According to the report, several factors kept lawsuits at bay in Indian country: lack of resources and access to legal assistance, lax enforcement of the VRA by the Department of Justice, the isolation of the American Indian community and the debilitating legacy of years of discrimination by the federal and state governments.

American Indian voters' rights were being challenged in the southern Plains states as well.

It wasn't until 1970 that the Colorado Constitution was amended to allow American Indians to vote and take part in the political process.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Ute members were not allowed to register to vote at the tribal headquarters, while the non-Indian population was afforded satellite registration locations in various communities. Litigation changed that situation. Prior to 1997, no American Indian had ever been elected to a county office in Montezuma County, home of the Ute Mountain Utes.

The report stated that defendants in American Indian voting rights cases frequently argue that "Indians are mainly loyal to their tribes and simply don't care about participation in elections run by the state."

The report went on to say it was the state itself that created an atmosphere of non-loyalty to the state by denying the American Indian the right to vote.

"The courts have invariably found patterns of widespread discrimination against Indians in the political process, including chronic racial bloc voting," the report stated.

To read the entire report, visit the ACLU Web site at www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/24403pub20060307.html.