American Indians Worry About Voting Rights Act's Future

American Indian Charon Asetoyer says that when she went to vote a few years ago, a white man gave her the finger and asked her in vulgar terms what she was doing there.

She says she told him she had a right to vote, and she went back to her car to wait for him to leave. Only when he sped away did she walk inside.

"It's outright racism," said Asetoyer, who lives on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in impoverished Charles Mix County, where Indians are about one-third of the population.

While the federal Voting Rights Act has brought them a long way from the days when some states required that they be "civilized" to cast ballots, many Indians around the country say they still face intimidation, restrictive voting requirements and long distances to reach polling places.

During the 2004 election, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's campaign obtained a restraining order in Charles Mix County against GOP poll watchers, accusing them of intimidating Indian voters. The Republicans denied that, saying the move was purely political. Daschle lost to Republican John Thune.

With parts of the Voting Rights Act set to expire in 2007 unless Congress reauthorizes them, some Indians say that the current federal and state protections need to be preserved and strengthened, too.

They cite, for example, South Dakota's new voter identification law, which requires photo identification at the polls, a problem for many on the reservations who do not have IDs. The law permits those without identification to sign an affidavit, but opponents argue there is confusion about what is allowed. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged other voter ID statutes seen as burdensome to Indians in Albuquerque, N.M., and Minnesota.

"The tribes are still very concerned about the targeted efforts to disenfranchise their vote," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

Some Indians want the Voting Rights Act changed to bring more counties around the country under closer federal scrutiny and to expand bilingual assistance at polling places. Other suggest a larger number of polling places, more Indian poll-watchers and more general oversight on Election Day.

"If those federal protections weren't there, Indians wouldn't have a chance at voting," said former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. "The law probably ought to go farther."

Chris Nelson, who as South Dakota's Republican secretary of state is chief election officer, pointed to a big increase in Indian turnout in the past few years and said he has seen little evidence of voter intimidation. Nelson said some federal protections on South Dakota's reservations could safely be removed.

Under the Voting Rights Act, changes in election policy in most of the South and other places around the country with a history of discrimination need the approval of the U.S. Justice Department. That list includes South Dakota's Shannon and Todd Counties, with large numbers of Indians.

But Nelson said: "Has the preclearance requirement done anything to improve the ability of Indians to vote in those counties? The answer is no."

The debate comes as Indians show growing electoral clout.

During the 2002 Senate race in South Dakota, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson won re-election by 524 votes with help from a huge increase in turnout on reservations. In Washington state, a surge of Indian votes helped lift Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell to victory in 2000. In Arizona, reservations helped seat Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2002.

Johnson said that Congress will have to maintain some protections to keep Indian voting levels high.

"There's still a lack of trust and confidence between Native Americans and state institutions," he said, "and keeping some federal oversight is something that Native Americans want to have."