By Scott Meyer
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs website contains a list of frequently asked questions. Among them, “[d]o American Indians and Alaska Natives have the right to vote?” The simple answer, yes, belies the complex relationship between the indigenous peoples of North America, and the United States.
In 1924, the U.S. passed the Snyder Act, which entitled Native Americans born in the U.S. to full citizenship. Ostensibly the 15th amendment, which was passed more than fifty years earlier and granted U.S. citizens the right to vote, combined with the Snyder Act should have allowed Native Americans to vote. In practice, since the Constitution delegated to the states the administration of elections, several decades passed after the Snyder Act before Native Americans actually received national suffrage. The final two holdouts were Utah and North Dakota, which granted “on-reservation Native Americans the right to vote in 1957 and 1958, respectively”. However, even after gaining the right to vote, Native Americans faced many of the same challenges employed against African-Americans to stymie their votes. The passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), often associated with protecting African-American voters, also benefitted many American Indians who lived in covered states or counties, such as Alaska and Arizona. For decadesNative Americans filed lawsuits relying on the 14th and 15th amendment and various sections of the VRA to “gainequal access to election procedures and to have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.”