Of the many findings presented in a recent American Civil Liberties Union report, which concludes that many Indians face discriminatory policies and actions that deny them their constitutional right to vote, poor circumstances facing western tribal citizens tend to stand out.
One of the most shocking cases of disenfranchisement highlighted in the report, titled “Voting Rights in Indian Country,” centers on Buffalo County in central South Dakota, which, until recently, had a decades-old plan in place for electing its three-member county commission.
“Despite the fact that 83 percent of its population is Indian, the plan packed nearly all of them – some 1,500 people in a county of 2,000 inhabitants – into one district,” according to the report.
“Whites, though only 17 percent of the population, controlled the remaining two districts, and thus controlled the county government.”
And this wasn’t in ancient times. This was just a few short years ago.
In 2003, tribal members filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU, in which they alleged that the districting plan inequitably divided its population for representation and had been drawn to discriminate.
The county ended up admitting its plan was discriminatory and agreed to submit its future plans to federal supervision.
The situation in Buffalo County is just one of many bad scenarios presented in the report involving Indian voting rights that have called for legal intervention.
Interestingly, almost every lawsuit cited was filed on behalf of Native Americans in western states, namely Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.
After reading about so many discrimination cases throughout the region, I grew curious—why? Is the West more likely to discriminate against Native voting rights? Are Indians there more likely to litigate?
To help answer those questions, I turned to a couple of Native voting rights experts, including Daniel McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah who co-authored the 2007 book “Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote.”
He explained that there have been many voting rights cases filed in the old confederacy, but the numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters dwarf the number of Indian voters there, so that's where the attention from advocates tends to be focused.
Not fair, but reality.
McCool also said that protections in the Voters Rights Act tend to favor situations where Indians are concentrated in a certain area, which is often the case involving many western reservations.
He added that cases involving Natives and language assistance have all been in the West because that is where there are still significant numbers of Indian people who do not have a mastery of English and prefer using their own language.
McCool’s explanations tell me that the West is not necessarily any worse than any other region on Native voting rights—but it is fertile ground for study. And with study comes attention. And with attention comes change.