Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Native American tribes’ lawsuit could decide who controls Senate in 2015 - The Hill - covering Congress, Politics, Political Campaigns and Capitol Hill |

Native American tribes’ lawsuit could decide who controls Senate in 2015 - The Hill 

By Jordy Yager 07/16/13 05:00 AM ET

A high-profile lawsuit on the voting rights of Native Americans could help determine control of the Senate in the next Congress.

A group of 16 Native Americans, nine of whom are military veterans, is waging a protracted legal battle against Montana’s Democratic secretary of State and county administrators, arguing for improved access to voter registration sites. 

The case will be significant for Democrats in 2014 as they vie to keep control of the upper chamber by holding retiring Sen. Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) seat. Republicans need to pick up six seats to win back control of the Senate. 

The litigation is moving forward at the same time as a recent Supreme Court decision that no longer requires a number of jurisdictions to get advance federal permission in order to make changes to their election laws.

The three Montana counties now being sued have historically lost Section 2 Voting Rights Act cases. However, for the state’s overwhelmingly poor and geographically isolated Native Americans — who vote predominantly for Democrats — the Montana fight is deeply personal. Tribal leaders say it is an issue of fundamental fairness. 

An estimated 50,000 Native Americans are eligible to vote in Montana. Many of them live on reservations throughout the sprawling 550-mile-wide state, which means driving more than 100 miles for some to reach polling sites established long before Native Americans got the right to vote.

It’s the distance equivalent of voters in Washington, D.C., having to drive to Gettysburg, Pa. and back to complete their late registration forms or cast early in-person absentee ballots.

If the state allowed more voting stations, known as satellite offices, on reservations, more Native Americans would have the ability to vote by a factor of 250 percent, a group supporting the lawsuit argues.

This group, which is providing strategic and financial support to the plaintiffs, includes Four Directions, a nationally known voting rights organization, and Tom Rodgers, the Native American lobbyist who blew the whistle on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff for charging Native American tribes exorbitant fees on lobbying.

Together, they have spent about $335,000 waging the legal battle, which began in the months leading up to the 2012 election. They have also offered to pay the cost of establishing the satellite offices, which could run up to $8,000 apiece for each location. 

The Department of Justice, Montana tribal leaders, the ACLU and the National Congress of American Indians have all backed the plaintiffs in the legal dispute.

The origin of the lawsuit began when Rodgers, a member of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe, received a phone call that U.S. Army Spc. Antonio Burnside, a fellow Blackfeet member whose tribal name was Many Hides, was killed last year in combat on Good Friday in Afghanistan.

In late April 2012, after raising the money to help celebrate the soldier’s life, Rodgers said a feeling of rage overcame him.

He noted that Native Americans have the highest percentage of military enlistees of any ethnic group.

“Some of the poorest of the poor can fight a war and die for you on a hellish moonscaped mountainside and then when they return home in a flag-draped coffin, you seek to diminish their native brothers’ and sisters’ ability to vote. Young dead soldiers do not speak. They leave us their deaths. It is us who must give them meaning by remembering them,” Rodgers said. “We got tired of the dark lies in rooms of white marble. Now the plaintiff warriors will take their faith in justice by acting with justice to other rooms of white marble: the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and Congress.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who won reelection last year, said that poverty and unemployment levels on reservations are higher than in the rest of the state, and that many Native Americans don’t have access to transportation or can’t take time off from work.  

“Native Americans are about 6 percent of the population, so it’s absolutely significant,” said Tester.
“Everybody who’s entitled to vote, we ought to give them every opportunity to vote,” Tester said. “We shouldn’t be limiting participation, we should be encouraging it.”

The suit might have an impact beyond Montana as well. If it goes as far as the Supreme Court, major Native American populations in Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nevada, California, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and Alaska could see their voting rights greatly expanded or restricted.
Democrats are facing challenging elections in four of those states next year. 

Native Americans have played a crucial role in electing Democratic senators, including Tester and Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Al Franken (Minn.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Mark Begich (Alaska.). All have won elections by fewer than 4,000 votes.

But for now, Montana — where Democrats are scrambling to find a candidate following ex-Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s surprise decision not to run — is the central battleground.
Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch (D) says she supports the Native Americans’ demands, but that the lawsuit is misdirected.

At a video-recorded meeting with the tribes earlier this year, tensions between the two sides were palpable as they failed to negotiate a compromise after a nearly hour-long discussion.

“I care that the people at this table have equal access, and what is in my power as secretary of State to do, I can do,” said McCulloch. “What I do not have the authority over is establishing county clerk offices. That authority belongs to the county governing body, the county commissioners.

“We will support and assist any county whose governing body has made a decision to open a second county clerk election office that can offer services such as registering voters and issuing absentee ballots. You have my unwavering commitment to that.”

A spokeswoman for McCulloch, citing the ongoing litigation, declined to comment for this article.
The plaintiffs and tribal leaders rejected McCulloch’s remarks. They said Montana’s secretary of State should join the tribes by officially standing with the plaintiffs and leading the county commissioners to create the satellite offices.

J. Gerry Hebert, who worked on voting rights issues for more than 20 years in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, doesn’t agree with McCulloch’s assessment either, saying that this type of case falls directly within her office’s jurisdiction.

“The secretary of State is the chief election officer and as such has the overall responsibility to ensure that all the state laws are complied with,” said Hebert, now the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. “And in this case, which is typically the case, a plaintiff will file a lawsuit and bring it against both local and state election officials, because it is both of their responsibilities.”

Although the issue has been in the local press for nearly a year, the Montana Democratic Party has not weighed in on the lawsuit, saying only that it supports greater access to polling sites and will continue aggressive “get out the vote” efforts.

“Increasing access to the ballot box on reservations and throughout Montana has always been a priority,” said Chris Saeger, a spokesman for the state’s party. “We would welcome any improvements that make it easier for Montanans to have their say in elections.”

“The Democratic Party of Montana has said we have done what we could,” Rodgers said. “But hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger, for the way things are, and courage, to make a difference.”
Carole Goldberg, a professor and vice chancellor at UCLA’s School of Law who has dealt extensively with Native American legal rights, said discrimination is widespread in many states with Native populations.  

“There are persistent patterns where states have criminal jurisdiction on reservations and the counties that exercise this jurisdiction locate their facilities and services in a place convenient for the non-Native population and not the Native populations,” said Goldberg, who has donated to multiple Democratic candidates.

Barring a settlement, oral arguments are expected to begin this fall.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

U.S. Budget Cuts Fall Heavily on American Indians -

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — The Red Cloud-Bissonette family needs a new trailer. Frank, who is disabled, and Norma, his wife, are members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who live on the sprawling grasslands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Despite their constant efforts to patch the seams of one of their trailers that was hauled here in 1988, rot and mold continue to climb up the walls. The family has punched a hole in the ceiling for a chimney for their wood stove, a necessity given the harshness of the winters but a fire hazard in the dry climate.

A second trailer a few feet away, where some family members live, including a grandchild, has no plumbing or running water.
The Red Cloud-Bissonettes are one of about 1,500 families on a waiting list at a local housingimprovement program that was recently told that it is being shut down. “These are real, real low-income people,” said Andre Janis, the housing program’s director. “If we go away, a lot of people are going to be without these services completely.”
And it is just one of dozens of cuts the tribe is stomaching, many of them due to the mandatory federal budget reductions known as sequestration. When Congress approved legislation for the budget cuts, which went into effect on March 1, they specifically exempted many programs that benefit low-income Americans, including Medicaid, tax credits for working families and food stamps. But virtually none of the programs aiding American Indians — including money spent through the departments of interior, education, health and human services and agriculture — were included on that list.
As a result, the cuts are starting to deliver yet another blow to hundreds of the United States’ most deeply impoverished communities.
“More people sick; fewer people educated; fewer people getting general assistance; more domestic violence; more alcoholism,” said Richard L. Zephier, the executive director of the Oglala Sioux tribe. “That’s all correlated to the cuts from sequestration.”
On the Pine Ridge reservation, home to around 40,000 members of the tribe, the unemployment rate is estimated at as much as 85 percent. Shannon County, home to the town of Pine Ridge, has a per-capita income of less than $8,000. The local economy is not just reliant on transfers from the federal government; it in no small part consists of them.
Over all, the tribe’s budget is about $80 million a year, of which $70 million comes from federal sources, said Mason Big Crow, the tribe’s treasurer. The tribe still did not know how much money it would lose, waiting on word from Washington, he said, but the number would be in the millions.
The tribe is cutting the size of a program that delivers meals to the elderly, many of whom are housebound. The school budget, Head Start program and health service are shrinking, too. The tribe has no choice but to cut everywhere, Mr. Big Crow said.
Despite the reservation’s extraordinary problems with crime — alcohol and methamphetamine abuse are rampant, many of the tribe’s youth are involved in gangs — its police force is absorbing more than a million dollars in cuts.
“We’re cut to the bone,” Ron Duke, the police chief, said. “Right now, we’re being reactive to things. It’s really hard to be proactive when you don’t have enough staff. We’re just constantly answering calls.”
The force has already absorbed a cut of more than 6 percent, he said. This autumn, it will cut another 8 percent. Chief Duke has let 14 staff members go. He said that at any given time, the reservation had only nine patrol cars on duty to cover an area the size of Connecticut, exhausting his officers as they chased down calls.
With the cuts, the poverty trap that has plagued the reservation for generations looks certain to worsen, with yet more families mired in deprivation, reservation officials and residents said.
“Imagine how people feel who can’t help themselves,” said Robert Brave Heart Sr., the executive vice president of the Red Cloud Indian School on the reservation. “It’s a condition that a lot of people believe is the result of the federal government putting them in that position, a lot of people are set up for failure. People have no hope and no ability whatsoever to change their fate in life. You take resources that they have, that are taken away, it just adds to the misery.”

While the effect of sequestration on the overall economy has been diffuse, with the largest impact falling on the military and companies dependent on Pentagon spending, nowhere has the sting been felt more severely than on American Indian reservations.
There was a time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was “a bunch of federal employees providing direct services to tribes,” said Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary of the interior in charge of the bureau. “Now, a big part of the way we provide services to Indian tribes is that we contract with tribal governments, so they’re providing the services to citizens.”
The bureau, he said, had no choice but to pass the cuts directly to the tribes. “Tragic consequences are occurring,” Mr. Washburn said.
“In Indian country, there’s a disproportionate number of people employed by the government,” said Amber Ebarb of the National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit based in Washington. “There is not as much of a private sector presence in Indian country, which tends to be high-poverty and high-unemployment to begin with.”
Some tribes, including those that operate successful casinos close to major population centers, have the resources to compensate for some of the cuts, diverting money from rainy day funds or holding back nonessential expenses.
But dozens of smaller or less wealthy tribes and nations are not so lucky. Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, said the tribe was absorbing a $1.7 million cut, and trying to avoid layoffs and program closings. Still, if worse came to worst, it might have to move to emergency-only medical services, or closing entire programs.
“We put in about 50 percent of our financing, and the federal government puts in about 50 percent,” Mr. Payment said. “But we’re only meeting about 60 percent of our need to begin with.”
In the Navajo Nation, Deborah Jackson-Dennison, the superintendent of the Window Rock Unified School District, is in the process of reducing the school budget to about $17 million, from about $24 million, absorbing a cut from sequestration as well as from the local government. “It’s like getting two black eyes at once,” she said. She has let go of 14 employees, and moved the school district down to four buildings from seven.
In response to the cuts, many tribal leaders are lobbying the federal government to protect the tribes from sequestration — on both moral and legal grounds.
“We should be exempt from sequestration,” said Dr. Zephier, the Ogala Sioux director. “All tribes should be exempt.”
The tribes contend that the federal government does not just disburse money to them through federal programs. It meets its nation-to-nation treaty obligation to provide certain services to American Indians. Viewed in that light, a cut is not just a cut but a broken legal promise, and one in a long line of them.
“The tribes in this country, the federally recognized American Indians and Alaska Natives, have the world’s first prepaid health plan,” said Stacy Bohlen, the executive director of the National Indian Health Board, an advocacy organization based in Washington that has argued vocally against the cuts to Indian health programs. “They paid for it with their lives, and their land, and their culture, and the forced abrogation of their future.”
But on the reservations, a sense of resignation has set in.
“It’s one more reminder that our relationship with the federal government is a series of broken promises,” said the Rev. George Winzenburg, the Catholic priest who serves as president of the Red Cloud Indian School. “It’s a series of underfunded projects and initiatives that we were told would be funded to allow us to live at the quality of life that other Americans do.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Broken Promises -

That type of story is all too familiar. I believe that American Indian children are the country’s most at-risk population. Too many live in third-world conditions. A few weeks ago, I traveled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s hard just to get there. A two-hour drive from Rapid City brings you to Shannon County, the second poorest county in the United States.
The proud nation of Sioux Indians who live there — like many of the 566 federally recognized tribes — have a treaty with the United States, the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which promised that their health care, education and housing needs would be provided for by the federal government.
Tribal leaders, parents and some inspiring children I’ve met make valiant efforts every day to overcome unemployment, endemic poverty, historical trauma and a lack of housing, educational opportunity and health care.
But these leaders and communities are once again being mistreated by a failed American policy, this time going under the ugly name “sequestration.” This ignorant budget maneuvering requires across-the-board spending cuts to the most important programs along with the least important. American Indian kids living in poverty are paying a very high price for this misguided abandonment of Congressional decision-making.
When we pushed American Indians off their tribal lands, we signed treaties making promises to provide services in exchange for that land. On my visit to Pine Ridge, I saw how we continue to cheat them. Sequestration, which should never have applied to sovereign Indian reservations in the first place, only compounds the problem.
It’s easy for many to believe those who say that automatic budget cuts aren’t hurting anybody much. But that’s wrong. And I can introduce you to the kids who will tell you why.
At a round-table discussion I had with students of Pine Ridge High School, I met a young man who qualified for the state wrestling tournament this year. The school and tribe had no money to send him. So the wrestling coach spent $500 out of his own pocket to pay for travel and food. The student slept on the floor of the gymnasium because there was no money for a motel room.
When I asked a group of eight high school students who among them had had someone close to them take their own life, they all raised their hands. More than 100 suicide threats or attempts, most by young people, have been reported at Pine Ridge so far this year.
The rate of suicide among American Indian youth is nearly four times the national average, and is as high as 10 times the average in many tribal communities across the Great Plains. At the same time, mental health services are being cut as a result of sequestration, with Pine Ridge losing at least one provider this year.
The youth center on the reservation is closed because of lack of funding. Money for the summer youth program, which pays high school students to work during their break, has also been eliminated.
I met a 12-year-old homeless girl at the emergency youth shelter. Her mother is dead. She doesn’t know the identity of her father. She’s been in multiple foster homes and been repeatedly sexually abused. She found safety in the shelter, but its funding is being cut because of sequestration — an indiscriminate budget ax, I might add, that was thought of as so unconscionable when I was in the Senate that it would never have been seriously considered.
The very programs that we set up to provide those basic life necessities on reservations are the same ones feeling the indiscriminate, blunt cuts of sequestration. How can we justify such a thoughtless policy?
While I was at Pine Ridge I also met with the Tribal Council, whose members described a severe housing crisis. In one district more than 200 homes are without electricity. Throughout the reservation, I saw many dilapidated homes missing windows and doors.
Pine Ridge students told me that many of their friends and families were homeless. “Our friends sleep in tents,” one student said.
Even in normal times, the Indian Health Service operates with about half the money it needs. Tribal Council members told me that some of their health funds last only until May. If you get sick after May, too bad. Now these health care programs, already rationing care, are subject to the sequester. The Indian Health Service estimates that as a result it will have 804,000 fewer patient visits this year.
Congress should hold a series of investigative hearings on our unfulfilled treaties with American Indians. Add up the broken promises, make an accounting of the underfunding, all of it, and then work with tribes to develop a plan to make it right. In the meantime, we must exempt Indian country from sequestration — right now.
Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, served in the House from 1981 to 1992 and in the Senate from 1992 to 2011. He is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.