Don’t Take Native American Voters for Granted

This opinion was originally published by the New York Times on October 29, 2018.

Ahead of the midterm elections, the state of North Dakota is using one of the most restrictive voter identification laws in the country to engage in that most American of traditions: excluding and discriminating against indigenous people.

Thanks to the state’s Republican Party, all who want to take part in the democratic process must have a residential address on their identification cards. However, many tribal citizens in North Dakota don’t have residential addresses or postal service. There are five federally recognized tribes in the state, with five reservations. More than 31,000 indigenous people live in North Dakota, and around 60 percent of that population lives on reservations. Those tribal citizens are usually issued tribal ID cards by their nations or by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That makes those documents federally recognized, and once issued, they can be used for everything from getting through security at the airport to opening bank accounts. But they can no longer be used to vote.

This is egregious even by the standards of Republicans’ all-out voter suppression war. Native voters in the state typically cast ballots for Democrats, and a quick glance at voting maps shows that they are concentrated in four areas — islands of blue in a sea of red. If those Democrat-leaning areas are overlaid on maps of the state’s reservations, the boundaries align. With the new voter ID law, which will exclude voters in precisely these areas, those blue precincts can now turn red. Magic!

I have been covering elections in Indian Country since 2008, and while North Dakota’s move isn’t unusual, the stakes in this election feel higher. As the American empire begins its descent into Balkanization, Native voters could play a key role, and perhaps even slow the process, by voting for people who have represented their interests. In North Dakota, that person is Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who was elected in 2012 with the help of Native voters.

Democrats are fuming over the disenfranchisement of Native voters now that a Senate seat is at stake, and reporters are descending on North Dakota to cover the problem. Yet there was little national attention in 2013 when the ID law was first introduced, in 2015 when it was made more restrictive by also banning college ID’s, in 2016 when it was ruled unconstitutional or in 2017 when it was reintroduced and again ruled unconstitutional by a district court.

North Dakota Republicans have soldiered on: The state appealed the district court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned it, and on Oct. 9, the United States Supreme Court denied an application to stop the state from applying the law. When voters in North Dakota go to the polls on Nov. 6, they may find that the same ID they used to vote in the primary months earlier is no longer accepted.

It is a travesty of democracy, but for indigenous people in America, it is nothing new. We were not granted full citizenship until 1924, and in 1938, seven states still refused Native Americans the right to vote. Utah holds the honor of being the last state to enfranchise Native Americans, in 1957.

Democrats who say they care about Native American voting rights should acknowledge that these struggles continue. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against San Juan County, in southeast Utah, after officials closed polling places and switched to mail-in ballots even though many Navajo don’t have residential addresses or postal service. As recently as August, a federal judge had to intervene to put a Navajo candidate back onto the ballot for county commissioner after he was removed by San Juan County officials.

In 2016 in Nevada, the Pyramid Lake Paiutes and the Walker River Paiutes sued the state for denying tribal citizens access to polling places and registration sites within their territories. That same year, the Supreme Court allowed the state of Arizona to bar organizers from picking up and delivering ballots to election sites close to Native voters who had no access to mail or would otherwise have to drive hours to cast votes.

If Democrats do manage to retake control of the House or the Senate, they should stand up for indigenous communities outside of election cycles.

The Indian Child Welfare Act, for example, which tries to keep Indian families together, is under attack with the support of anti-Indian hate groups that hope to repeal it. Democrats could pass additional legislation to support the act.

The Trump administration has seized land from the Mashpee Wampanoag in Massachusetts. Congress should establish pathways to have those lands returned.

The Keystone XL Pipeline, which would run from Canada down through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, continues construction despite numerous lawsuits from tribal nations. Democrats should demand analysis on the potential impacts of spill as well as how the project affects the United States’ trust obligations to tribal nations.

When Native Americans cast their ballots in the United States, they do so with the knowledge that this nation’s democracy and its electoral system are made possible by genocide and land theft. Many of us nevertheless choose to vote, but it is grotesque that we must now also fight to reform that system to have the chance to fully participate in it.

Democrats have had many opportunities to be true allies to indigenous people. Instead, they have saved their anger for when it suited their needs.

Tristan Ahtone

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