Tony West: Protecting the right to vote for the first Americans

Associate Attorney General Tony West speaks at the National Congress of American Indians Mid-Year Conference in Anchorage, Alaska. June 9, 2014. Photo © NCAI

Associate Attorney General Tony West announces Department of Justice consultation on voting rights in Indian Country:
On June 9 in Anchorage, Alaska, I announced at the National Congress of American Indians Mid-Year Conference that the Justice Department will seek formal consultation on a proposal that would give American Indian and Alaska Natives a polling place in their community, a convenience most citizens already take for granted. The consultation will take place on August 26, 2014, in conjunction with the 22nd annual Four Corners Indian County Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona, and will be followed by two telephonic consultations on September 3 and 4.

Even after the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 brought First Americans within the protections of the Constitution’s voting amendments, states with large tribal populations continued to use a variety of discriminatory devices to keep native voters off the rolls. And while many of us know the story of African-American disenfranchisement, the history of Native American disenfranchisement is no less disgraceful.

In 1975, recognizing the barriers to full participation, Congress permanently prohibited literacy tests throughout the United States, and expressly included American Indians and Alaska Natives as protected groups under the Voting Rights Act. Sections 4 and 5 of the Act prohibited many jurisdictions with large tribal populations from changing their voting laws until they could prove that the change would not create new barriers to effective participation – a powerful statutory tool that, until last year’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, helped protect the voting rights of First Americans for nearly 40 years. A number of jurisdictions with large Native American populations who have limited English proficiency are also covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, requiring bilingual election materials and assistance.

But despite reforms, participation rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to lag behind those of non-native voters. For example, in Alaska, turnout among Alaska Natives often falls 15 to 20 or more percentage points below the non-native turnout rate.

Get the Story:
Tony West: The Right That Protects All Other Rights (Indian Country Today 8/2)

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