Lightning in the Hand: Indians and Voting Rights

30 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2010 Last revised: 14 Dec 2010

Date Written: December 3, 2010


This review essay discusses Laughlin McDonald’s book, American Indians and the Fight For Equal Voting Rights (2010), to explore questions of disenfranchisement, dilution, and constitutional design. McDonald examines the barriers to full political equality faced by Indians in communities in five Western states and describes litigation under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 attacking these barriers. In many ways, the Indian voting rights cases resemble the cases brought, often a generation earlier, by black citizens in the South and Latino citizens in the Southwest. But as McDonald explains, Indians occupy a distinctive status within the American political order. Indians are citizens not only of the United States and the state where they reside but often also (and particularly in those regions where they are most likely to bring voting rights claims) of a separate sovereign as well – their tribe. This fact has inflected both the history of Indian disenfranchisement and the course of litigation under the Voting Rights Act.

Part I describes the history of Indian disenfranchisement in light of their distinctive constitutional status. Indians’ exclusion from the political process reflected profound racism as pernicious and pervasive as the discrimination facing blacks in the South and Latinos in the Southwest. But it also involved complex constitutional and conceptual issues unique to Indians, who were excluded from citizenship, even after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and who remained subject to distinct treatment even after citizenship was conferred. Part II then turns to the relatively recent vote dilution litigation that forms the heart of McDonald’s book. Indian voting rights cases have followed a clear path blazed by earlier cases involving blacks and Latinos. Nevertheless, themes related to Indians’ distinctive political status crop up within the litigation at various points. Finally, Part III looks beyond Indians’ claims under the Voting Rights Act to discuss issues related to internal tribal elections. Like other elections, these contests involve fundamental questions about enfranchisement and electoral design. Tribal answers to these questions sometimes depart dramatically from the rules governing federal, state, and local elections. I talk about two such departures, one related to voting by non-residents and the other related to nonequipopulous voting districts, to show how they that tie into ongoing debates extending far beyond Indian law.

Keywords: voting, Indians, citizenship

JEL Classification: J71, K39, K41

Suggested Citation

Karlan, Pamela S., Lightning in the Hand: Indians and Voting Rights (December 3, 2010). Yale Law Journal, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Pamela S. Karlan (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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