Tribal Constitutions and Voting

Tribal constitutions Much like the U.S. constitution and state constitution, individual tribes also possess written tribal constitutions that may be amended and/or revised define the role of tribal governance, including the regulation of tribal voting.

Constitution Framework and History

Approximately 60% of today’s tribal constitutions were adopted under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 Also known as the Indian New Deal, this act ended the process of allotment that had broken up tribal lands and worked to put Indian people back in control of tribal affairs. The constitutions set forth the framework of tribal governments, for example the role of a tribal chairperson — sometimes known as a chief, chairman, or a president — and whether they are selected by election or heredity The process of handing something down within a family.

Tribal constitutions also outline tribal voting procedure such as when elections occur, who is eligible to vote, where polling places will be, what time polls will open and close and the specifics of absentee voting Voting without being in the polling place itself, most often done by mail before the day of the election. Tribal constitutions generally weave together traditional forms of government alongside a contemporary government framework with executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Tribal Elections

Tribal elections are crucial to tribal government. While some tribes have memberships of 20,000 to 30,000, many tribes across the U.S. are quite small, sometimes with only a few hundred members.

Often, tribal elections are contentious precisely because reservation populations are so small and most tribe members personally know those seeking elected office. Similarly, tribal elections can also generate controversy because tribe members generally feel the immediate impact of any legislation that is decided upon, quite different from legislation that is passed at the national level in Washington, D.C., by representatives that are elected thousands of miles away.

However, this also means that tribal elections generally have very high voter turnout rates, sometimes approaching twice the rate of national elections.

Methods of Voting

Secret ballot voting is the most common method to elect those in leadership positions within the tribe as well as to pass important legislation. Just as state and national election procedures allow for absentee voting, so do tribes. Today, many American Indians live away from their reservations. Absentee voting by tribal members allows them to continue to participate in tribal politics.

To account for this, tribal governments provide services to and seek representatives for tribal members in urban areas. For example, both the Red Lake Nation and the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe operate urban offices in Minneapolis to provide services such as a designated polling location during tribal elections to their tribe members who live in the Twin Cities.

Tribal Voting and the U.S. Government

Tribally enrolled American Indians are in a unique position. As U.S. citizens, American Indians have the ability to vote at the national, state, local, and tribal levels.

For American Indians who live on-reservation, their vote has always mattered in tribal elections and politicians are increasingly paying attention to the indigenous vote in both state and federal elections, as well as paying attention to tribal elections. This becomes more and more important as tribes continue to reaffirm their sovereignty and make their own decisions around controversial topics.