June 18, 2014

CGU team provides key evidence in Native American voting rights lawsuit

Native Americans on three remote reservations in Montana have won improved access to the ballot box due in part to the work of a team of researchers from Claremont Graduate University (CGU).

Jean Schroedel, a professor in CGU’s Division of Politics and Economics and a leading expert on Native American voter suppression, was recruited to serve as an expert witness in the case of Wandering Medicine vs McCulloch, in which a group of Native Americans sued state and county officials, arguing that the long distances they had to travel to reach election offices effectively denied them an equal ability to register and vote. Mark Wandering Medicine, the lead plaintiff in the suit, had to travel 180 miles round trip if he wanted to do late registration or early voting at the county seat.

The lawsuit was settled in favor of the plaintiffs in the federal District Court in Billings on June 10, when government officials agreed to open satellite election administration offices on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Fort Belknap reservations.

Schroedel, who has conducted extensive research into the disenfranchisement of Native Americans across the United States, was contacted by the plaintiffs’ lawyer in January 2014. He asked her to analyze voting registration and turnout data from Big Horn, Blaine, and Rosebud counties to determine whether travel distances to elections offices unfairly affected residents of the three reservations.

Faced with an impossibly tight deadline, Schroedel enlisted Politics and Economics alumna Moana Vercoe (PhD, ’09) to help with research and data collection. The pair then turned to Professors Tom Horan and Brian Hilton of CGU’s Center for Information Systems and Technology to decipher and illustrate the data using the latest Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping software.

Their research showed that travel distance combined with socio-economic factors had a significant adverse impact on reservation residents’ participation in in-person absentee voting and in-person late-registration. For many poor residents of the reservations, the costs of traveling to elections offices often meant sacrificing the ability to put food on the table.

“The $10.40 that an Indian in Big Horn County would spend on a trip to the courthouse is the purchasing equivalent of three gallons of milk,” Schroedel said. “The $14.74 travel cost for Indians in Blaine is the purchasing equivalent of four pounds of hamburger, while the $21.02 cost of gasoline for Indians in Rosebud would purchase two regular sized packages of disposable diapers.”

Schroedel submitted the team’s findings to the court, and she testified for nearly 7 hours during a deposition on the matter this past spring. The case was set to go to trial this month when the parties agreed to settle.

“The new satellite offices will greatly decrease travel burdens and give residents on the three affected reservations the type of voting access afforded to most other citizens of Montana,” Schroedel said. “This is a huge victory for Native Americans in Big Horn, Blaine, and Rosebud counties, and I’m proud of the way our CGU team pulled together to contribute to it.”

Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation Chairman Tex Hall called the victory a good day for Indian Country.

“Our vote matters and states need to make sure they make voting access equal for Indian Country,” he said. “This victory could make the difference in many elections.”

Schroedel’s research over the past three years has revealed that virtually no attention has been paid to vote dilution and suppression of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, the last group of persons born in the United States to gain citizenship and the franchise. Yet from the late 1970s onward, the native vote has become an important factor in a number of electoral contests, where the margin between victory and defeat has been razor thin.

A nearly 100 page monograph based on this research is being published later this year in Studies in American Political Development, a major journal published by Cambridge University Press.