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Pima County, Ariz. — Herminia Frias spent Friday trying to sort out how members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona would be able to safely cast ballots in the upcoming U.S. elections. As a member of the tribe’s council, Frias has made increasing voter participation one of her priorities. Now, she’s trying to do it during a pandemic that has hit Native American populations disproportionately hard and after the reservation lost its only early-voting center.

The early-voting site had been on the tribe’s Tucson-area pueblo, where roughly 4,300 of the federally recognized tribe’s 22,000 members live, from 2010 to 2016. In 2018, the county recorder’s office closed it. The tribe sued, saying that not having early voting on the reservation would curtail members’ ability to vote. Last Thursday, a federal judge ruled it was too close to the November 3 election to reopen it.

Before filing suit, for two years, the Pascua Yaqui had lobbied Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez to reopen the site. The tribe had the backing of Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and support from the board of supervisors. But, in Pima County, decisions related to early voting are made unilaterally by the recorder, while Election Day is handled by the county’s elections department — a division in authority that Frias said the tribe was not aware of until the site closed.

“It was a learning process for us,” she said. “We had no idea about the scope of the county recorder’s office.”

Rodriguez said turnout at the pueblo’s early-voting site had been too low to keep it open, and that the tribe’s members who live on the reservation, which is roughly two square miles on Tucson’s southwest side, could vote early at an off-reservation library about eight miles away. The Pascua Yaqui argued that their membership skews elderly and, even though their reservation is not contending with the same challenges as tribes on more vast and rural land, it could take hours to get to and from the library voting site; one in five reservation residents do not have a car and must rely on county transit.

Rodriguez, who is retiring at the end of this year, suggested in September that the tribe could operate an Uber-like service to shuttle its members to the early-voting site or vote using Arizona’s long-established vote-by-mail system. Frias said that Rodriguez made the decision predicated on “assumptions that were wrong” about the Pascua Yaqui people and that a “bigger issue, here, is that people don’t trust vote-by-mail.” 

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Jonathan Diaz, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center who represented the Pascua Yaqui in the case, said the dispute was “emblematic of the broader struggle for equal access to voting in Native American communities across the country.” 

“Native American voters are often left behind, not necessarily maliciously, but Native American voters and communities can be an afterthought,” he said.

After decades of voter suppression, Native Americans vote at lower rates than other groups — roughly 34 percent of voting-age Native Americans, or about 1.2 million people, were not registered in 2018, compared to about 26.5 percent of White people. Native Americans did not gain U.S. citizenship until 1924 and could not vote in Arizona until 1948. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Arizona stopped requiring voters to pass literacy tests and provided translators, compelled by the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law that outlawed voting practices disparately impacting racial and ethnic minorities.

Language barriers and a lingering distrust of the U.S. government remain today. In addition, geographic isolation on large rural reservations that often do not have paved roads and addresses, lower education levels, lack of reliable internet access and voter ID requirements all depress registration and turnout among Native Americans, according to a 2020 report from the Native American Rights Fund. 

Native American voters, as a bloc, have the kind of numbers that can determine the outcome of close state and federal elections. In a campaign to increase voter participation, the National Congress of American Indians points out that Democratic U.S. Sen. John Tester won his 2018 reelection race by just 20,000 votes in Montana, a state that has about 57,000 Native Americans of voting age. 

In Arizona, there are about 309,000 Native Americans of voting age spread across at least 22 federally recognized tribes. President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton there in 2016 by just 91,000 votes. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema received just 55,900 more votes in her 2018 Senate race than Republican Martha McSally, who was later appointed to finish Sen. John McCain’s term after his death. McSally is in a tight reelection race this year that is one of several that will determine which party controls the Senate. 

Some of Arizona’s tribal reservations have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, further complicating efforts to get out the vote. The Navajo Nation, for example, has roughly 156,000 members living on a reservation that spans 27,000 square miles across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. As of Tuesday, it had 575 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, giving the reservation a higher per capita death rate than any single U.S. state — and cases are on the uptick again. 

A federal appeals court earlier this month refused to allow an extra 10 days past Election Day for ballots from the more than 67,000 Navajo Nation members in Arizona to reach state election officials. State advice for members who have not yet returned a ballot by mail is to vote or drop one off in person.

The Pascua Yaqui and Navajo Nation cases are among a series of legal disputes this year related to Native American voting rights generally and COVID-era voting specifically. 

In September, a Montana court struck down a 2018 referendum that restricted how ballots could be collected and submitted, saying there were “costs associated” that were simply “too burdensome” for the Native American communities on the seven reservations there. Also in Montana, earlier this month, the Blackfeet Nation, a tribe with roughly 17,000 enrolled members and 7,000 living on its reservation in Heart Butte, sued Pondera County, which quickly agreed to open a satellite center on tribal land for in-person voter registration, in-person early voting and Election Day voting. 

In Alaska, a court ruled in a case brought by the Arctic Village Council and the League of Women Voters that a state mandate that absentee ballots be notarized or signed by a witness would cause “certain and irreparable harm” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Improving voting access for Native Americans is one reason that Democrat Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, decided to run for Pima County recorder this year. Tohono O’odham land in Arizona is 4,460 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut. Many of the 13,000 residents do not have a street address and use one of the 1,900 P.O. boxes on the reservation or share a rural cluster mailbox, which can be in a different precinct or county than where they live.

In 2016, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Cázares-Kelly helped found Indivisible Tohono, a chapter of Indivisible, the national progressive grassroots advocacy organization. In 2018, she interviewed with the recorder’s office for a tribal outreach position after working within Tohono O’odham institutions for more than a decade. She turned the position down due to its low salary and watched as it remained vacant. Then, Rodriguez announced she would retire. “When I heard she was retiring, I started thinking about educating the next recorder. Very shortly after, I decided I had a duty to at least try,” she said. 

Cázares-Kelly, who is expected to win her race against Republican Benny White, said it’s not uncommon to see people leaving the reservation’s only post office with a massive bag of mail that has accumulated over weeks or months. For reservation residents, merely filling in an address on a voter registration form can be fraught. Her address in the community where she grew up, for example, would be something like: “Heading west off Highway 86, turn south on Indian Route 21, drive into the community, turn south at the house with the red fence, drive down the dirt road, take the Y, it’s the house to the left of the big tree.”

Even the name of her childhood community — Pisin’ Mo’o — is spelled Pisinemo by the Arizona Department of Transportation. Sometimes the less common spelling of Pisenemo is used. “People simply didn’t know what to put,” she said of voter registration forms.

In 2016, only about a third of voting-age individuals living on Tohono O’odham Nation land were registered to vote. Indivisible Tohono has worked to “demystify” the process, she said, noting there has been a “drastic change in voting culture” on the reservation. During the 2018 midterm elections, vendors advertised free tacos and sodas for individuals with an “I Voted” sticker. “It was really cool, we’d never really seen that before,” she said. 

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs announced in September that the state’s online voter registration system had been updated to accommodate non-standard addresses like that described by Cázares-Kelly or even latitude and longitude markers. The state secured extra funding during the pandemic to help safely administer elections for residents living on the state’s 20 reservations. Its safe voting guide encouraged reservation residents to register to vote by mail and, if returning ballots by mail, to do so ahead of the recommended October 27 cutoff for the rest of the state. Earlier this week, an early-voting site opened on the Tohono O’odham reservation, which has been largely closed to outsiders since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back on the Pascua Yaqui reservation, Frias said they are putting together “safety kits” of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer to distribute at the reservation’s Election Day polling location, where the bulk of the 2,300 registered voters there will likely cast ballots. She said the “big media push” within the state to vote early has led to calls from tribal members wanting to know where they can drop off ballots. But Pima County does not have drop boxes like other counties because Rodriguez does not believe they are secure. There are curbside drop-off locations where election officials are present to receive ballots, but none are on the Pascua Yaqui reservation. 

Though the judge denied Pascua Yaqui’s request to reinstate the early voting site in time for this year’s election, Diaz said the underlying case, which alleges the removal was a violation of the Voting Rights Act, will move forward. But, since Rodriguez is retiring, there “may be an opportunity for a non-judicial resolution,” he said. 

“They’ll get an early voting site eventually and they’ll fight until they do,” said Alex Gulotta, the Arizona director for the voting-access group All Voting is Local, which was also involved in the case.

“For this election, they will not have an early voting site and they’ll have to work together as a community, and that’s going to take more work than it should and it’s going to expose them to more risk of COVID than it should,”  he added.

All Voting is Local is one of more than 100 local, state and national organizations that make up the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition. Individuals who encounter barriers to voting on Election Day can dial a coalition hotline staffed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law at 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Native Americans who face difficulties casting ballots in Arizona can call 1-888-777-3831.