Oct 21, 2020
Claudia Cragg @claudiacragg speaks with Jean Reith Schroedel about her new book, Voting in Indian County: The View from the Trenches. Schroedel is professor emerita of political science at Claremont Graduate University and in this work she weaves together historical and contemporary voting rights conflicts as they related particularly to Native Peoples.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Dakota encouraged voters to use absentee ballots in the June 3 presidential primary election. Although the state received almost 89,000 absentee ballots in the primaries — five times the number of absentee ballots cast in the June 2016 primaries — and voting increased across the state, voter turnout on the Pine Ridge Reservation remained low, at approximately 10%. As Schroedel explains in her book, barriers to Indigenous voting are nothing new. Absentee ballots may only make them worse.
Though the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Indigenous people born within the United States, voting can still be difficult for tribal communities. During South Dakota’s 2020 primary election, any voter who used an absentee ballot was required to mail in a ballot application accompanied by a photocopy of an acceptable photo ID card, or else have a public officer notarize the application. For people on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where businesses are often few and far between, producing a photocopy, or even finding a notary public, can pose significant barriers to applying for absentee ballots.
In many cases, this is deliberate. Strategies designed to suppress the Indigenous vote, range from having too few polling stations on reservations to gerrymandering to dilute the impact of tribal votes to failing to adhere to the minority language requirement of the Voting Rights Act. Indigenous voters sometimes have to travel up to 200 miles to even reach a voter registration site or polling location.
Indigenous voters also face blatant voter discrimination from local governments; many have had to engage in costly and burdensome lawsuits and court battles simply to gain access to the ballot box. In 2014 in South Dakota, the Jackson County Commission refused to place a satellite polling station in Wanblee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in time for the 2014 midterms. The county eventually installed the station, but only after four enrolled members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe sued.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, a surge of laws has made it even more difficult to vote in Indian Country. In 2016, for example, Arizona passed a so-called “ballot harvesting” law that made it a felony for third parties to mail in or drop off another person’s ballot. But many rural Indigenous voters rely on other people, including workers from voter assistance organizations, to collect and turn in their absentee ballots.