Members of tribal nations are disproportionately burdened by barriers to voting, from strict voter identification and registration requirements to inadequate language assistance and inaccessible polling locations. Restrictive voting laws are on the rise, while the avenues for challenging them under the prevailing model of voting rights are narrowing. This Note advocates for a different approach to conceptualizing and combatting Native American voter suppression.
First, it advances a new jurisprudential theory centered on tribal sovereignty: suppressing the Native vote not only denies rights to individual citizens but also denies sovereign power to tribes. Historically, states required Native American people to renounce tribal membership, culture, and lands to vote. Today, states and localities continue to denigrate tribal sovereignty in the administration of elections, such as by rejecting tribal-issued IDs and interfering with tribes’ organization of their own political communities. Apart from securing the fundamental rights of individual Native citizens, Congress has a substantive duty to secure tribal sovereignty in federal election administration that is rooted in its trust obligation to tribes.
Second, this Note proposes a new legal framework for enhancing Native voting power: Congress should require states and local election officials to negotiate with federally recognized tribes toward the formation of tribal-state compacts governing federal election administration in Indian Country. This framework would relieve tribes of the burdens that they currently carry to initiate collaboration with local election officials, fill gaps in voter assistance, and challenge unlawful voting restrictions in court. Meanwhile, it would involve tribes in the process of lawmaking and regulation, enabling them to exert a measure of sovereign power over federal elections in Indian Country.
“Through this lawsuit we’re insisting Lyman County hold elections with a fairly drawn map in 2022,” said plaintiff, voter, and Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Vice Chairman Neil Russell.
The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and three enrolled members filed the lawsuit to prevent Lyman County from continuing to violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act until 2026. “Like every other county already using new election district maps adopted after the 2020 Census in 2022, Lyman County must comply with the Voting Rights Act and implement the revised district map immediately,” said Native American Rights Fund (NARF) Staff Attorney Samantha Kelty. “Lyman County cannot continue to disenfranchise voters who live on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation until 2026.”
The MHA Nation and individual Native American voters in North Dakota have filed a motion to intervene as defendants into a North Dakota District Court redistricting case. The plaintiffs have sued the State to overturn a legislative subdistrict for the Fort Berthold Reservation. The MHA Nation and tribal member intervenors are seeking to defend the Fort Berthold Reservation subdistrict that was approved by the North Dakota legislature.
The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Spirit Lake Tribe, and several individual voters filed suit in North Dakota challenging North Dakota’s state legislative map as unlawfully diluting the voting rights of Native Americans in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). You can see the complaint here.
We welcome you to tune in to the podcast HilTime with Hilary Tompkins as she discusses the Native American Voting Rights Act legislation with Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney Jacqueline DeLeon.
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