This week Hillary Clinton made a couple of bold proposals on voting rights. As is often the case when we discuss this issue, her proposals focused on things like voter registration and access to early voting. But it is important to be aware of the fact that many Native Americans face a different set of challenges when it comes to voting rights and efforts to suppress them.
It was mid-April, and Montana was gearing up for this year’s primary election. Voting would get underway in Big Sky Country on May 5, with a month of advance voting by absentee ballot—by mail or by delivering a ballot to the county courthouse—leading up to Primary Day on June 3. If people hadn’t registered, they could head to the courthouse to sign up.
But for Ed “Buster” Moore, who lives on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, it wasn’t so simple. To cast a ballot during the absentee-voting period, he would have to make the 126-mile round trip to the Blaine County Courthouse in Chinook. That’s about $21 worth of gas, not to mention the income that Moore, an artisan, would lose by taking a half day off from his work making hand drums, rawhide bags and other items that he sells in the community and on the Internet. A diabetic, he’d have to buy lunch on the road. Those expenses add up.
If he had to vote today? “I couldn’t afford it,” Moore says.
In a lawsuit filed last year by Mark Wandering Medicine in Montana, researches found that Mr. Moore is not the only one who can’t afford to vote.
To determine how distance and poverty affect Native voting access, the DOJ asked University of Wyoming geography professor Gerald R. Webster to examine the three Montana reservations involved in Wandering Medicine. Webster found that Indians on those reservations traveled two to three times farther than whites to get to a county courthouse. Meanwhile, depending on the reservation, Indians were two to three times more likely not to have a vehicle for the trip. They were also less likely to have money to fill the gas tank: In Blaine County, which overlaps Fort Belknap, Webster found that the Native poverty rate was 2.5 times that of whites; in Rosebud County, which overlaps the Northern Cheyenne reservation, Natives were four times more likely than whites to live below the poverty line.
Notice who commissioned that research: DOJ (yet another example of the Civil Rights Division at work).
This time, however, the Native people have the United States on their side: Wandering Medicine has attracted the interest of the Department of Justice, which views the suit as an important test of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and has taken it up as part of its efforts to ensure equal rights nationwide.
That lawsuit was eventually settled, giving Native American voters in Montana some temporary relief. But DOJ kept working on it. Recently they have announced legislation that would address the problem.
On May 21, 2015, the Department of Justice proposed federal legislation that would require states or localities whose territory includes part or all of an Indian reservation, an Alaska Native village, or other tribal lands to locate at least one polling place in a venue selected by the tribal government.
Here’s what one voting rights advocate had to say about the DOJ proposal:
The Justice Department’s proposal “would be great, a lot of it is stuff we’ve had to fight election by election, county by county to get in the past,” said Greg Lembrich, a legal adviser to Four Directions, a nonprofit civil rights group that has filed numerous voting rights lawsuits in those states over the last decade. He called the prospect of Congress taking up the DOJ’s legislation “a dream come true for voting rights advocates.”
Of course we can all engage our cynicism about how legislation like this doesn’t stand a chance of passing in this Congress. But let’s not minimize what it means for people like him to finally be able to say something like this: “This time, however, the Native people have the United States (DOJ) on our side.”