Voting Act Not 'Grabbing' American Indians
Argus Leader Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law 40 years ago, the measure was largely seen as a way to fight discrimination against blacks across the South.
Today, civil rights leaders say, the law has evolved to protect the voting rights of growing numbers of minority voters nationwide, including Native Americans. As the Voting Rights Act approaches its 40th anniversary Saturday, a much broader coalition is pushing for reauthorization when key provisions of the law expire in 2007.
But while blacks, Hispanics and Asians have clamored to gain footing in the political arena, many Indians remain ambivalent or even distrustful about voting in government elections - even as record numbers now are becoming part of the mainstream political process, Native American leaders say.
Still, Native Americans say that as tribal members become more engaged in mainstream politics, the Voting Rights Act's importance to their communities will only grow.
"The struggle never ends," said Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota, who spoke at a recent symposium on the act in Washington. "If we weaken and we're not vigilant, we could lose the opportunity our minority people expect us to provide them."
This week, the National Congress of American Indians joined dozens of civil rights leaders in Washington, D.C., to launch a national campaign for the reauthorization of provisions in the voting rights law that are set to expire.
One of the provisions requires that certain states and precincts - mostly in the South, although Shannon and Todd counties in South Dakota also are included - have their voting laws and redistricting plans cleared ahead of time by the Justice Department.
The state of South Dakota is involved in litigation about its redistricting process. State officials have said they may not have to adhere to the federal rules.
Other provisions require local elections officials to provide bilingual ballots and election material to voters in heavily non-English-speaking areas and grant the federal government the power to assign election examiners to districts on Election Day. Congressional hearings on the issue might start as early as this fall.
But as the reauthorization of the bill gains support in Congress, Native American leaders will have to persuade tribal members to join the fight.
"You have to convince people that it's OK to vote for a government they don't believe in, that sent their grandmas to boarding school and took away their lands," said Heather Dawn Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, who is working on voting-rights issues for the National Congress of American Indians. "But we are being more realistic in our communities, realizing that whether or not we vote, decisions are still going to be made that affect us. We might as well have our voices heard."
The Voting Rights Act was adopted at the height of the civil rights movement. President Johnson rallied for its speedy passage in 1965 after police brutalized nonviolent civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was among the civil rights marchers badly beaten in Selma, said the Voting Rights Act has dramatically changed the country's political landscape. But more needs to be done to ensure fairness for America's diverse electorate. Voter suppression and intimidation of minority voters played a key role in the 2000 and 2004 elections, Lewis and others say.
In South Dakota, the act requires 19 counties to provide language assistance for tribal members, and the law also has been used by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge redistricting plans.
NOT GOING TO THE POLLS
Efforts in recent years to increase voter turnout among Native Americans across the country have paid political dividends in and out of South Dakota, Thompson said. She said the Native American voting bloc was influential in the re-elections of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., and election of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Even so, Native Americans continue to vote at much higher rates - about 80 percent - in tribal elections, while only about 20 percent cast state or national ballots, Thompson said
Shortbull, who was elected to the state Senate after he lobbied to create a legislative district encompassing the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, wants the district divided in order to increase the influence of tribal voters.
He was one of only three Native American state senators during his tenure in the mid-1980s.
"I don't see much improving in services from the state of South Dakota," he said, "unless we have more representatives in the state legislative body."
Reach Diana Marrero at dmarrero@ gannett.com.
Political DirectorCenter for Civic Participation
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