June 3, 2024

100 Years Later, and There’s Still Plenty of Work to do to Secure Equal Access to the Ballot Box for Native Americans

June 2, 2024 marks one hundred years of Native Americans being considered citizens of the United States. That’s it. Despite living on this land for thousands of years, Native Americans lived in the United States longer as non-citizens (148 years) than they have as officially recognized U.S. citizens.  

Before the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924, Native Americans born within the United States didn’t have any of the basic rights that came along with U.S. citizenship — including the right to vote. The Indian Citizenship Act was a landmark moment in the struggle for fairness and equality for Native Americans, but they were still routinely denied the right to vote for generations afterward. Many states found creative ways to sidestep the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments’ bans on racially discriminatory voting laws, like refusing to register a voter whose home address was on tribal reservation land. Even the famous Navajo Code Talkers — whose unbreakable codes safeguarded critical military operations during the Second World War — couldn’t vote in the country they were working so hard to protect. 

Generations of hard work and hard-fought court battles have greatly improved access for Native communities, but barriers still remain. Many Native American voters today live in remote or rural areas with limited access to polling stations and spotty or nonexistent home mail delivery, making it difficult to cast their ballots. Language barriers can hinder voter participation, especially for Native Americans whose language is oral, not written. Gerrymandering and redistricting efforts often dilute the voting power of Native communities, diminishing their ability to elect candidates who represent their interests. Cultural and historical distrust of government institutions also plays a significant role, stemming from centuries of broken treaties and discriminatory policies. 

To help address these obstacles, Responsive Gov is teaming up with partners and Tribes to try to help make government more responsive to citizens that live in tribal communities and have a unique set of needs. This work requires concerted efforts to expand access to voting locations, enact policies that protect voting rights, provide language assistance, and foster trust between Native communities and government institutions. 

Upholding the fundamental right to vote for all Americans, including Native Americans, is essential for a government who wants to be responsive to the needs of all its citizens.