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100 years after Native people became citizens, voting access is still fraught

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On June 2, 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act. The law granted U.S. citizenship and the right to vote to all Native Americans born in the U.S. Jacqueline De Leon is an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund and an enrolled member of the Isleta Pueblo. On the cusp of this 100th anniversary, I asked her whether the U.S. has kept that promise of voting rights for Indigenous people.

JACQUELINE DE LEON: Unfortunately, it has not. Native Americans across the United States don't have the full rights of citizenship, and that's because it's simply too hard to vote. And unfortunately, we're seeing state and local actors taking advantage of that across the country.

SHAPIRO: Too hard to vote. What does that mean?

DE LEON: Well, we asked that question directly to Native communities. We conducted a series of nine field hearings across Indian country, asking, why is it so hard to vote, or why is it that you don't vote? And we got this remarkably consistent picture back. And that consistent picture is that it's too hard to vote. Election services - so early voting, registration, even election day polling places - are often located too far - 20, 30, 40, 50 miles away. That could be a hundred miles round trip. Native Americans aren't going to have the gas money, the vehicles.

And unfortunately, persistent poverty is going to make that even harder. And the roads themselves are pretty poor, especially in the wintery month of November. Vote by mail isn't a solution because across Indian country, homes are unaddressed, and they don't receive residential mail delivery. So that same kind of travel has to be undertaken in order to get to a post office. And then we see this third element, which is state and local officials that are taking advantage of these structural deficiencies to continue to make it too difficult to vote.

SHAPIRO: When you look nationally at the impact of all the challenges you've described, does it result in lower voter participation rates among Native Americans than other groups?

DE LEON: Absolutely. Native Americans have the lowest voter registration and voter turnout rates than any group in the country.

SHAPIRO: Could you tell us a story about someplace that you think has moved in the wrong direction, that's made it harder for people to vote in the last few years?

DE LEON: Well, I can tell you a story real quick of a place that is really contentious, right? And...

SHAPIRO: Sure.

DE LEON: That's Arizona. The statewide elections are incredibly close. So we know that there are about 300,000 eligible Native Americans. And we saw the Native Americans flex their political power in the last presidential election. And directly after that, you know, the state legislature passed a bill. And in that bill, one of the provisions that was targeted towards Native Americans was this proof of residential location requirement in there. Well, the legislature is well aware that over 40,000 homes on Native land don't have addresses on them. And so this proof of residential location requirement was intended to make it more difficult for Native Americans to vote. And when we see those incredibly small margins, when we see political participation, then we see a backlash. And that's what happened there. But we were able to successfully beat back that law after a legal challenge.

SHAPIRO: Is there a clear solution? Is there an easy way that governments could answer this problem and solve this if they wanted to?

DE LEON: Absolutely. It's a structural problem, so there can be a structural answer. And that's pass the Native American Voting Rights Act, which would mandate on-reservation voting access. It would mandate on-reservation election services. It would mandate acceptance of tribal IDs. It would require that you couldn't require an address on the ID, and then it would require tribes that don't have residential address or mail delivery be able to designate a building that can be used to pick up, drop off. That address could be used to register to vote. So there are structural solutions to these structural problems, and we need a federal solution because unfortunately, we see state actors that are unwilling to comply.

SHAPIRO: Every U.S. citizen who has the right to vote deserves to be able to do so. That's part of the promise of democracy. But do you think there is something particularly important about voting rights for Native Americans per se?

DE LEON: Absolutely. So what we have in the Indian Citizenship Act was a conferral of citizenship on Native Americans. And so there wasn't an offer and acceptance. And as a result, Native Americans were forcibly assimilated into America's body politic. There's this question even today among tribal communities of whether or not American citizenship is in some way in conflict with American democracy. I personally don't think so. I think that America, as a federalist system, has the room for robust federal sovereignty, state sovereignty and robust tribal sovereignty. But what Native Americans hear over and over again is that this system is not for them, that they're not welcome.

I think that unfortunately, that's a legacy of conquest, and it's an ongoing reality of racism that keeps Native Americans from being able to be fully enfranchised, to exercise their political power and elect candidates that understand tribal sovereignty and promote tribal sovereignty. And I think we see that, unfortunately, in the structural barriers because of the lack of resources that are allocated to Indian country.

SHAPIRO: Jacqueline De Leon is an attorney with a Native American Rights Fund and an enrolled member of the Isleta Pueblo.

(SOUNDBITE OF JORJA SMITH SONG, "GREATEST GIFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
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