Are you planning on voting this year? American Indians have among the lowest voting rates of all ethnic groups in the US, and it’s no accident that this in the case. American Indians were the last group, behind African Americans and women, to be given the right to vote, and some states actively worked to disenfranchise Indian voters well into the second half of the 2oth century. A number of counties in states with high Native American populations are currently being federally monitored for voting rights violations.
Some attempts to block Native votes have been blatant. In 2004, for example, Indian voters in South Dakota were blocked from voting after failing to provide photo identification in spite of the fact that photo identification was not required by state or federal law.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one counterbalance to this type of discrimination. According to a provision of the act, jurisdictions with a high number or percentage of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, or Spanish-speaking Americans must provide any information offered in English in the language of the covered minority group as well.
As of the latest Census, 38 jurisdictions must provide language assistance to people speaking Native American or Alaska Native languages. According to a press release by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, this assistance specifically includes:
• Translations of written materials, such as, but not limited to, ballots, referenda, petitions, and informational materials concerning the opportunity to register, the deadline for voter registration, upcoming elections, and absentee voting.
• Oral assistance at polling sites by trained interpreters. Sufficient numbers of interpreters, determined by the number of registered voters who need such assistance, should be available.
• Publicity regarding the availability of bilingual assistance. Examples include: bilingual notices at voter registration and polling sites, announcements in language minority radio, television and newspapers, and direct contact with language minority community organizations.
If you know of an elder, or anyone else, who has been blocked from voting in the past because of a language barrier, let them know that if they live in a qualifying jurisdiction (which is likely if there is a significant Native population where they live) then they are entitled to language assistance at the polls.