Justice Department Calls for Enhanced Voting Access for American Indians and Alaska Natives

Title 42 of the United States Code §1973(a) states that, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision in a manner which results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color”.  But what happens to groups of Americans who may experience inordinate and disproportionate burdens in pursuit of the right to vote?

In May, the Justice Department sent a bill draft to Congressional leaders asking for passage of legislation that would enhance the voting access and abilities of American Indians and Alaska Natives.  The draft legislation, named the “Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act of 2015”, would have Congress acknowledge that these groups face very difficult barriers in achieving their right to vote, and that little is done to offer relief in helping them do so. 

Goals of the legislation include the reduction in traveling time and distance required by these groups in order to participate in democratic elections, which would in turn increase participation by more American Indians and Alaska Natives.   

If the legislation is passed as is, it would allow an Indian Tribe leader to request a polling place within its jurisdiction.  The petitioned State would then be obligated to provide the various instruments and benefits of administering an election (machines, tabulators, compensation for staff, etc.) to the residents of the Tribe in at least one location.  Additional factors may be considered if it is shown that there is a need for another polling location in the Tribe.  The Tribe would be obligated to arrange all the facilities and staff needed to administer an election in preparation for requesting assistance from election officials in that state. 

Once a polling location is set up for use in elections, it cannot be withdrawn by the election officials.  Only the Indian Tribe or the Attorney General can decide to withdraw a polling place once it has been set up in compliance with the Act.  This provision extends to the current number of polling locations already being used by Indian Tribes for participation in elections. 

According to Daniel McCool, Susan Olson, and Jennifer Robinson, authors of Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote (2007), Indian Tribes have found their rights to vote upheld numerous times by various courts, citing Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act as well as Amendments XIV and XV to the United States Constitution. 

Currently, Congress has not decided to introduce the legislation from the Justice Department, and the Supreme Court has not ruled on an American Indian right-to-vote case since 2013. 

For more information from the original source article, please view the Department of Justice’s press release about the draft legislation here.

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