In 1948, Miguel Trujillo won the lawsuit that ensured the right to vote for Native Americans in New Mexico. Photo from Colin Towler / Pinterest
New Mexico has the highest registration rate for American Indians in the country. According to the National Congress of American Indians, Native Americans 77 percent of potential Native voters are registered to vote, compared to 73 percent for African Americans and 70 percent of white voters, 78 percent Hispanic and 62 percent for Asian Americans. Why New Mexico? Here is one idea: New Mexico was the last state to legally enfranchise Native American voters. The year was 1962. (Not that other states still don’t try to limit Native votes. There remains a long list.) Miguel Trujillo, Laguna Pueblo, went to the county clerk’s office to register in 1948. He was informed that he was an “Indian not taxed” and therefore ineligible. Trujillo had recently returned from World War II and was a sergeant in the Marines. According to a history by the New Mexico state bar, this case was “not reported” meaning there is a lot less in the public record today. And by 1962 the law had formally changed (even though it took five years after that to change the state’s constitution). ”Sergeant Trujillo never sought the limelight nor did he ever capitalize or exploit his achievement for being the catalyst to establish voting rights for Native Americans in New Mexico,” James McKay wrote for the bar. “He just did what he thought was the right thing to do and demonstrated a determination not to accede nor accept unfair treatment.” What’s striking is that more than a half-century later the right to vote in Indian Country remains a battle between those who would shrink the number of people eligible and those who would expand political participation. Last week was the ideal example: The Supreme Court made it harder to vote in some places — and easier in others. That back and forth, that struggle of who gets to vote, is what defines so much of the American democratic experience. The voting scorecard from Slate: “First the court blocked a lower court ruling that had restored a week of early voting in Ohio. Then the court blocked a lower court ruling that had restored North Carolina’s recently repealed provisions allowing for same-day voter registration and the counting of early voting. Then, Thursday night, the court blocked a lower court ruling that had put Wisconsin’s voter ID law into immediate effect, after lower courts had consistently blocked its use until voting rights challenges had run their course. And soon enough, the court may be asked to block a 147-page lower court ruling, issued late Thursday night, that held Texas’ voter ID law unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Sometimes (as in Wisconsin) the Supreme Court has been protecting voters; at other times (as in Ohio and North Carolina) it appears to be protecting the ability of states to impose whatever voting rules they want.” Whew. That’s just last week. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that strict voter ID laws do contribute to lower voter turnout, by a couple of percentage points in the two states studied. (In a close election: Two points is a huge advantage.) The study also reviewed previous findings about voter fraud and concluded that it’s extremely rare in the U.S. Yet some won’t give up. In a debate in Wisconsin last week, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, said it doesn’t matter if it’s one vote, 100 or a thousand votes. (Actually the math would requiring adding a decimal point and zeroes to even his first number.) Indian Country is subject to the same forces of push and pull, the desire by mostly Republicans to limit voting rights. After litigation and much pressure, early voting has opened up in satellite offices in Montana and South Dakota. Yet Montana has a ballot measure that would restrict voting rights by ending same day registration. Former state Sen. Carol Juneau recently wrote in Char-Koosta News: “Montana Indians have to help defeat LR 126. We have achieved so much in expanding the Native vote in our state. LR 126 will change the law for the worse and limit our right to vote, in turn, limiting our voice and power.” It’s important that American Indian and Alaska Native voters challenge every obstacle that’s set up. That can be done through Nativevote.org, where there’s an election protection page including links to a hotline and attorneys who will legally fight for your rights. An investigation by PBS’ Frontline found that while many states are restricting participation while others are moving to try and increase voting, primarily through the use of early voting (or absentee). Frontline found that of those states restricting voting, “nine have a documented history of discriminating against minority voters.” It also said nearly 17 percent of the country voted early in 2012 and 36 states allow some form of early voting. (I have written my county clerk in Idaho asking for a ballot.) Frontline built an interactive graphic that is really useful, it’s easy to check provisions in every state and to see how the state ranks in terms of voting opportunity. So if you think your vote doesn’t count, spend a minute and look at all the initiatives that are costing a lot of money and dedicated to one purpose, to make sure you don’t vote. Why would they do that if your vote doesn’t count? Because this is 2014 where one vote might be the one that decides which party runs the United States Senate. Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.
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