Protecting the sacred right to vote for Native Americans

Bipartisan, bicameral U.S. lawmakers continue to push for the Native American Voting Rights Act

New Mexico absentee ballot drop boxes sit outside polling locations across the state. This one is located in Crownpoint, N.M., a town on the Navajo Nation. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

When the U.S. joined the war effort after the attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of Native Americans walked into recruiting offices to serve a country that had already taken so much from them.

And yet, Native Americans have fought to protect our democratic institutions by serving in the U.S. military at higher rates than any other demographic. These brave men and women were willing to sacrifice their lives despite being denied the most basic rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Until the mid-20th century, this included the right to vote.

World War II veterans were among the first generation of Native Americans to be eligible to vote. However, states denied this right despite their heroic military service and U.S. citizenship. Although the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 and the Indian Citizenship Act passed in 1924, finally granting citizenship and the right to vote to Native Americans, states continued to restrict their access to the ballot.

In 1948, Miguel Trujillo, Isleta Pueblo, came home from World War II a decorated war hero, but was turned away when he tried to register to vote because he lived on tribal lands and was therefore “an Indian not taxed” (tribal members are indeed taxed). Miguel challenged this injustice in court “in order to bring equality to the Indian people.” He won the case and changed state law to secure the right to vote for all Native Americans in New Mexico.

Another World War II veteran, Frank Harrison, Yavapai Nation, won the same right for Native Americans in Arizona. In Alaska, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit, secured Alaska Natives the right to vote by fighting bravely to pass the Alaska Equal Rights Act in 1945, making it the first anti-discrimination law in the nation.

Despite these victories, Native voters still face obstacles at every turn when attempting to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Historically, Native voters had to overcome literacy tests, intimidation, and poll taxes when voting. Today, barriers include geographic isolation, non-traditional mailing addresses, lack of broadband, limited transportation, fewer polling and registration sites, scarcity of Native language assistance, and precincts that divide tribal nations. These extraordinary problems confront Native voters every election cycle, which is why Congress must advance legislative solutions.

Native voters should not have to fight this hard to ensure their ballot is cast freely, fairly, and safely in the U.S. That is why in every Congress since 2019, legislators from both sides of the aisle have come together to protect the Native vote by introducing the Frank Harrison, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and Miguel Trujillo Native American Voting Rights Act.

In honor of these great American civil rights leaders, we understand the need to address the unique voting challenges faced by Alaska Natives and American Indians across the country.

It is critical to ensure Native voters have fair access to the ballot by allowing tribes to request at least one voter registration site, dropbox and polling location per precinct on tribal lands, directing states and local governments to accept tribal I.D. cards for voter identification purposes and requiring prior notice and consent before states and precincts remove or reduce voting locations on tribal lands. Finally, Congress should authorize modest grant funding for states that hope to establish task forces addressing the unique issues faced by Native voters.

It is incumbent upon every member of Congress to honor our trust responsibility to tribes and to our Native brothers and sisters, not only for the precious blood they spilled for our democracy, but also for the promises the U.S. has made to tribal nations – promises to safeguard unique protections and their inherent sovereignty under the law.

For too long, our democracy has excluded those to whom it owes the most. As we approach the 100-year anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act, our country must make an honest effort to hold free and fair elections by ensuring all Americans, including Native Americans, can participate in these elections without obstruction.

U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján represents New Mexico in the U.S. Senate, and U.S. Representatives Sharice Davids, Marry Sattler Peltola, and Tom Cole represent Kansas, Alaska, and Oklahoma, respectively, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Senator Luján and Representatives Davids and Cole introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act during the 117th Congress.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.