The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

Inquiring minds want to know: How are Native American communities handled for redistricting purposes? (OK, maybe only some inquiring minds want to know.)

Chloe Cotton, Native American Rights FundBecause tribes are sovereign, and because Native populations are often dispersed over large rural areas and because one size definitely doesn’t fit all in Indian Country, NCSL asked Chloe Cotton, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, for her answer.

Here’s what she had to say: “Ask tribal leaders and hold public hearings in the community, once it is safe to do so.”

More insight from our conversation.

  • First, Native communities can be seen as “communities of interest,” a term of art in the redistricting world that refers to geographic areas where residents have common political, economic or other interests and would benefit from having a shared representative. Twenty-six states have preserving communities of interest (COI) in their constitutions or statutes, but all states can use the concept. Cotton said that, as with any other COI, states can identify a COI by talking to those who are part of it. The geographic border of a reservation isn’t necessarily the border the tribe thinks of as their community. It’s a good approximation, but there could be parts of land outside the reservation that belong in the COI too. One more thing: members of two different tribes may wish to be treated as a single community of interest or as two different ones—getting public input is crucial.
  • Second, although tribal governments are sovereign entities, in this case, reservations might be treated akin to political subdivisions, such as counties, municipalities, school districts … you get the idea. Forty-four states have “preservation of political subdivisions” as a defined redistricting principle. State-level redistricters may not know that a reservation could easily have subdivisions within the reservation boundary that are recognized by the tribe. Redistricters know it is best not to split precincts, so extending that common wisdom to Native land, it’s best not to break tribal lines within a reservation. Cotton reported that in Minnesota in 2012, a five-judge panel in Hippert v. Ritchie drew districts that overtly prioritized Indian reservations in the districting process.
  • Third, don’t forget Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This is the part of federal law that prohibits any voting qualification, standard, practice or procedure that results in the denial or abridgment of the right to vote based on race, color or status as a member of a minority language group. In effect, Section 2 sets the background for the creation of majority-minority districts. To know whether a majority-minority Native American district is required is determined by conducting a racially polarized voting analysis, Cotton says.

The theme is clear. For each of these considerations, consultation with the tribe is essential. Even though the release of census data is delayed, Cotton, whose NARF position is funded by the Berkeley Law Foundation, says state officials can use this extra time to start these conversations. Reach out to the Native communities in your state—whether they have federally recognized tribal status or not—and if you don’t know who that might be (or you have other questions), ask Cotton at

Wendy Underhill is the director of elections and redistricting at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.