Navajos See Arizona Bills as Hindering Voting

Their access already is limited, Native American leaders say
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 15, 2021 3:45 PM CDT
Navajos See Arizona Bills as Hindering Voting
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez speaks during a live radio address with first lady Jill Biden in attendance, in Window Rock, Ariz., last month.   (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP, File)

Arizona Republicans say the voter restrictions they're pushing after President Biden's win in the state last year are designed to strengthen the integrity of future elections. To some, the changes will make voting even more difficult. The bills, some signed into law this past week by Gov. Doug Ducey, are worrisome for Native Americans who live in remote areas, other communities of color, and voters whose first language isn't English. One codifies the existing practice of giving voters who didn't sign mail-in ballots until 7pm on Election Day to do so, defying a recently settled lawsuit that would have given voters additional days to provide a signature. Another will result in potentially tens of thousands of people being purged from a list of voters who automatically get a ballot by mail. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Ducey's actions belittle tribes and fail to recognize the unique challenges Native Americans face in casting ballots, the AP reports. They include driving hours to reach polling places, unreliable mail service, and a need for more Native language translators. Other states have enacted restrictions since the election.

"This is an assault to the election process for people of color throughout this country," Nez said. "Here in Arizona, it's pushing back on the voters of tribal communities." Claims of voter suppression are "outrageous," said the bills' sponsor, Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita. "These are important cleanups and fixes," she said. Turnout on swaths of tribal land surged in 2020, helping Biden win a state that hadn't backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Before the pandemic, voting was a social event on many reservations. Tribal leaders give voters time off to cast a ballot and get others to the polls. Campaigns courted voters with traditional food. Even when they receive mailed ballots, many Native Americans prefer to drop them off on Election Day at their polling site, no matter how distant. Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, who is Navajo, said Republicans often say tribal members know what to expect when voting. That's true, she said, but the vast distances, spotty phone service, and lack of home mail delivery on some reservations pose challenges not found elsewhere. "We're saying we don’t have the same access to polling locations, and that message seems to get lost," she said.

(More Navajo stories.)

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