Voting Rights Act - Section 203 Should Be Reauthorized
Edited testimony of Jacqueline Johnson, Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians before the House Judiciary Committee - Subcommittee on the Constitution, November 9th 2005
Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. On behalf of the National Congress of American Indians and Native American Rights Fund, I appreciate this opportunity to express our support for the reauthorization of all of the provisions in the voting Rights act that are scheduled to expire in 2007; and in particular, to testify today in support of the reauthorization of Section 203 and the continuing need for the minority language assistance provisions throughout Indian country.
Last week at the NCAI Annual Session in Tulsa, Oklahoma tribal leaders from across the nation passed a Resolution calling upon Congress to re-authorize the minority language provision of the Voting rights Act.
This resolution is attached and submitted for the record. Native Americans were an historically disenfranchised people. Although Native Americans have inhabited North America longer than any other segment of American society, they were the last group to receive the right to vote when the United States finally made them citizens in 1924.
Even after 1924, certain states with large native populations barred Native Americans from voting by setting discriminatory voter registration requirements/ For example, various states denied Indians the right to vote because they were “under guardianship” or Indians were denied the right to vote unless they could prove they were “civilized” by moving off the reservation and renouncing their tribal ties.
New Mexico was the last state to remove all express legal impediments to voting for Native Americans iun 1962, three years before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In addition Native Americans have experienced many of the discriminatory tactics that kept African Americans from exercising the franchise.
With the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Congress took the first necessary steps to start the process of remedying the history of discrimination and disenfranchisement. While we have made tremendous progress in the last 40 years, we still have a long way to go.
In 1992, Congress moved again, passing the Voting Rights Language Assistance Amendments – the provision which are the subject of today’s hearings. Under the 1992 amendments, Congress strengthened the triggering mechanism of section 203 by adding a numerical threshold provision and by adding the so-called “Indian trigger” – wherein a state or political subdivision is “covered” if it contains all or any part of an Indian reservation where more than five percent of the American Indian or Alaskan Native voting age population are members of a single language minority and have limited English proficiency.
In passing the 1992 Language Assistance Amendments, Congress clearly recognized the need for language assistance in American Indian and Alaskan Native communities.
While significant progress has been made in enfranchising Native Americans, the need for section 203 has not diminished in the years since Congress added that section to the Voting Rights act. Historically disenfranchised, Native Americans continue to need and to use language assistance in the electoral process today. The value of Section 203 to Indian country cannot be overstated.
Today, according to the news determinations released by the Census Bureau in July 2002, eighty-eight(88) jurisdictions in seventeen (17) states are covered jurisdictions that need to provide language assistance to American Indians and Alaskan Natives.
While no one knows exactly how many Native American language speakers live in the U.S. today, the language provisions of Section 203 continue to be critical for many Native communities where tribal business is conducted exclusively or primarily in Native languages. Many Native people, particularly our elders, speak English as a second language.
Traditionally, voter participation rate by American Indians and Alaskan Natives have always been among the lowest of all communities within the Unites States. While voter registration and turnout by Native American voters is still below non-Native averages in many parts of the country, many Native communities have seen steady, even significant increases, since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In recent years, there has been a steady increase in the number of Native American candidates who are being elected to local school boards, county commissions and state legislatures.
We anticipate the substance of this report will provide, in part, the evidentiary basis underlying the need to strengthen and extend the Voting Rights Act. At its essence, the research shows a direct correlation between focused localized commitments to increasing voter participation rates in Native communities and the actual increases tha result. I submit to you that Section 203 is an essential component to ensuring the success of such focused localized commitments in our Native communities. Thank you.
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