Suppressing the Indian vote


The passage of the Snyder Act of 1924, during the Calvin Coolidge administration, admitted American Indians born in the United States to full U.S. citizenship.

Under the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, all U.S. citizens gained the right to vote regardless of race; but it wasn’t until more than 50 years later, with the Snyder Act, “that America’s native people could enjoy the rights granted by this amendment,” according to the Library of Congress. “Even with the passing of this citizenship bill Native Americans were still prevented from participating in elections mainly due to the fact that the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who has the right to vote.”

The article on the Library of Congress website points out that many “Native Americans suffered from the same mechanisms and strategies, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation, that kept African Americans from exercising that right. In 1965, with passage of the Voting Rights Act… protections for non-English speakers and other citizen voters were reaffirmed and strengthened.”

Fast forward to Jan. 20, 2016, when seven American Indian plaintiffs from North Dakota filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, under the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. and North Dakota constitutions, challenging North Dakota’s voter ID laws.

The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), argue in the suit that “Native American voters are disproportionately burdened” by North Dakota’s 2013 and 2015 voter ID laws. The voter ID laws specify that only certain types of IDs are acceptable at polling places; and in many cases, tribal members do not possess IDs that meet the strict standards imposed by the new laws.

“The burdens are substantial for a number of Native Americans who cannot afford to drive to the nearest driver’s license site (‘DMV’),” NARF explained, in part, in a press release distributed last month. “There are no DMV locations on any Indian reservations in North Dakota, and for many Native Americans, a DMV location may be over 60 miles away. Many Native Americans live below the poverty line, and do not have dependable access to transportation or cannot afford travel to a distant DMV location.”

“As a veteran who served this country, I know how important it is to vote,” remarked Richard Brakebill, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “But I wasn’t permitted to vote in 2014, because my address wasn’t listed on my ID. That was very upsetting.”

The defendant in the lawsuit is Alvin Jaeger, “in his official capacity as the North Dakota Secretary of State.”

A Jan. 21 story in the Grand Forks Herald quotes Jaeger as saying that the North Dakota Legislature, in 2003, made tribal ID an acceptable form of voter ID, “but we’ll have to see what their concern is,” vis-à-vis the lawsuit. “The same requirements are for all North Dakota residents,” Jaeger told the newspaper.

However, Matthew Campbell, a NARF staff attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told me that prior to passage of the 2013 voter ID law, North Dakota allowed more forms of ID to be accepted at the polls.

“After 2013, [North Dakota] limited it to five forms of ID, and then just last year, they limited it to four,” Campbell said, during a telephone interview.

Also, prior to 2013, “if someone showed up [at the polling place] without their ID… if they had a problem voting, there was a fail-safe mechanism that would allow them to vote. There were two, actually: one was a voucher – a poll worker or an election board member could vouch that you were qualified and you lived in the precinct; or you could sign an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that you lived in the precinct and were qualified [to vote].”

After 2013, the fail-safe mechanisms were abolished, according to Campbell, and North Dakota also required “an ID with a physical residential address on it.” He explained that many tribal IDs lack a person’s street address.

The lawsuit seeking to stop “implementation and enforcement” of North Dakota’s voter ID laws mentions that the 2013 bill passed “essentially on a party-line vote.”

Campbell did not want to get into the politics of these voter suppression measures, but I will: A group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has pushed this kind of legislation across the U.S. The goal is to diminish the ability of blacks and other racial minorities, students, the disabled, and the elderly, to vote. More specifically, the Koch brothers are trying to suppress the vote for Democratic candidates.

Republicans in North Dakota apparently have implemented the ALEC approach to disenfranchise American Indians.