Leaders Praise Supreme Court Decision to Uphold Voting Rights

Tanya Lee, Indian Country Today Media Network

Tribal leaders in Arizona praised the Supreme Court’s June 17 decision to strike down Arizona’s Proposition 200, which effectively restricted the voting rights of American Indians in the state.

The Hopi Tribe, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and other groups in the voting rights case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, were represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which characterized the Arizona law as a “state voter suppression measure.” The law would have required potential voters present proof of citizenship in order to register to vote by mail.

Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa says the tribe took the case to the country’s highest court because “no tribal member should be required to come in and say, ‘I’m a citizen of the United States.’ We’ve always been here. Many tribal members were born in homes. Many have no birth certificate. It’s not right for anyone to deny us the right to vote.”

Yavapai-Apache Nation Tribal Councilwoman Lorna Hazelwood also welcomes the ruling. “As a sovereign Indian tribe in Arizona, we recognize that the Supreme Court’s ruling on voter’s rights is a victory for Arizona tribes. Our people have been challenged for decades in engaging in the voting process, just based on the historical segregation of demographics. The 2004 voter approved Prop 200, continued to further discourage election participation of our people. The Supreme Court’s decision eliminating this provision is commended and welcomed by our Tribal Leader’s and eliminates the discouragement and challenges of our tribal voters.”

On the other hand, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Gregory Mendoza says that the ruling, while allowing “voter registration drives and individual registrations to continue without eligible voter registrants being burdened with providing documentation of citizenships,” still leaves open the possibility of voter discrimination. “The Court provided that Arizona cannot require individuals registering to vote to provide evidence of citizenship when they register [to vote] using a federal form. Nevertheless, the state can require individuals to prove their citizenship with documents such as a driver’s license or passport when registering with a state form…. The ruling left in place a dual-registration system; a federal system and a state system. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Community members predominately use the state form.”

Gov. Mendoza’s concern that voter discrimination could continue in Arizona was underscored when on June 25, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. Shelby County, Alabama, argued that the special circumstances under which the federal government assumed the authority to approve changes to state voting procedures, among them lower voter turnout among minorities, specifically African Americans, no longer exist 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Justice Clarence Thomas, in an opinion concurring with the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote, “Regardless of how one looks at that record, no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the nation in 1965.”

The court, in its 5-4 decision, agreed and struck down the part of the law that determined what criteria would be used to put a state under federal oversight in regard to voting rights in elections for everything from choosing a U.S. president to choosing local school board members.

In their dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote that “second-generation barriers,” such as gerrymandering district boundaries to put a majority of whites in each voting district and at-large voting, which dilutes the voting power of minorities, still exist. They noted that “between 1982 and 2006, DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice] objections blocked over 700 voting changes based on a determination that the changes were discriminatory.”

Arizona was among the nine states that were covered by the Voting Rights Act and that had to seek preclearance before it could make any changes to its voting procedures, which included how districts were drawn, where polling places were located and when they were open. That is no longer the case. What the Supreme Court gave with one hand, it may have taken back with the other.


Related stories:

Supreme Court Backs Cheap Tricks That Keep You From Voting

Custer’s Revenge? Supreme Court Guts VRA on Little Big Horn Anniversary

Supreme Court Ruling Impacts Voting Rights in Indian Country

Supreme Court Upholds American Indian Voting Rights


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