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  • A Case Study of Descriptive RepresentationThe Experience of Native American Elected Officials in South Dakota
  • Jean Reith Schroedel (bio) and Artour Aslanian (bio)

Political equality, according to Sydney Verba, "refers to the extent to which citizens have an equal voice in governmental decisions" and encompasses not only voting but also being able to hold political office without having to overcome institutional and statutory barriers.1 Yet one of the most important themes in any recounting of American history is the ongoing struggle to make political equality a reality for all citizens. While extremely important, the post–Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments failed to halt state-level efforts to place limits on minority political participation. Nearly one hundred years later, Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), which prohibits voting practices that "deny or abridge the rights of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."2 Particularly relevant for this discussion is section 5 of the VRA, which requires political jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to preclear changes in voting laws and regulations with the Department of Justice or the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia. The intent of this provision is to prevent voting rights violations before they might occur.

The Impact of Shelby County v. Holder

In 2013 the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder held that Section 4(b) of the VRA, which establishes the formula for ascertaining whether a political jurisdiction would be required to obtain a Section 5 "preclearance" for changes in election procedures, is an unconstitutional violation of the "equal sovereignty of the states" because states are treated differently based on "40 year old facts that have no relationship to present [End Page 250] day."3 Without the section 4(b) formula, Section 5's preclearance cannot be enforced. The Court's 5–4 conservative bloc pointed to the substantial increase in African American elected officials within southern states as justification for their decision, but they ignored the role of preclearance in protecting the voting strength of African Americans by prohibiting the adoption of discriminatory voting procedures that would have stopped them from electing their own candidates.

While numerous studies have shown a clear link between the VRA and increasing numbers of African American and Latino elected officials, the act's impact on Native Americans has garnered only a small amount of attention.4 Although Native Americans comprise only 2 percent of the nation's population, there are large numbers in some plains and mountain states, as well as in parts of the Southwest. Although Native Americans experience voting rights issues that are similar to those that affect other racial/ethnic minorities, we argue that there are important differences.

literature review

There is a large body of scholarship on the relative merits of descriptive representation, where the race, gender, or ethnicity of the representative mirrors that of his or her constituents.5 While researchers have linked descriptive representation with improvements in citizen-government interaction and increased voting turnout, there is a robust debate about whether minority representation translates into substantive benefits for the group.6 Research on African American and Latino state legislators shows that minority legislators are more likely to propose legislation of benefit to their constituents, but they often experience difficulties in getting the legislation passed.7 Not surprisingly, gaining legislative leadership positions increases the likelihood of getting such legislation passed.8 However, Robert Preuhs found that in racialized political contexts, minority legislators often are excluded from leadership positions; if they are excluded, then their ability to influence policy outcomes is minimal.9 These results vary depending upon the partisan makeup of the legislative body. Legislators from majority-minority districts have an advantage in gaining seniority, and if they are members of the dominant political party, that membership increases their chances of gaining leadership positions.10 On the other hand, if the legislature is dominated by [End Page 251] the opposition party, legislators often struggle due to being a double minority (i.e., both a racial minority and a member of the minority party), a situation that increases the likelihood of the legislative setting being highly racialized.

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