“I actually don’t think voting is the most important thing you can do. I think it’s the least that you can do.”
When the longtime Pima County Recorder announced she was retiring, Gabriella Cázares-Kelly felt she owed it to her community to fill the vacant seat.
Rather than risk the seat going to someone who might not care about rural and tribal communities, Cázares-Kelly threw her hat in the ring. She won handily in November and will serve as Pima County Recorder for the next four years.
Going at it Alone
Cázares-Kelly got her start by registering voters at Tohono O’odham Community College. She found that many people living in rural and tribal communities lacked the basic information about registering to vote. That’s when she first began calling the office she’s now in charge of when she had questions.
“The more I started doing this type of outreach, the more issues I encountered,” the newly-elected Pima County recorder told The Copper Courier. “It turned out some of the questions that I asked were so obscure that, sometimes they didn’t readily have an answer for me.”
Cázares-Kelly also found that it had been a number of years since anyone at the Recorder’s office had reached out to the community where she was doing outreach. For her, this discovery highlighted the systemic barriers that exist to prevent people from registering to vote.
The Pandemic Pivot
Cázares-Kelly thinks that in the next five years in Arizona, we have the real potential to address some large systemic issues that have been hurting our most marginalized community members. A lot of where that starts is with voting.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily shifted her priorities. Before tackling systemic inequities, Cázares-Kelly says her number one priority is to ensure the health of her employees and constituents is protected.
“That means that we have to figure out ways to serve our constituents while keeping our employees safe… so things like making sure that we are able to take online payments for document recording so that people don’t don’t have to come in here with a paper check,” Cázares-Kelly explains. “How can we make records available for research purposes — online? How can we make things easier? How can we communicate more readily to our constituents?”
Among the new technologies she plans to implement is an opt-in text message confirmation system that will let voters know: when their ballot has been mailed out to them; when it was returned to the office; when their signature was verified; and when their vote is counted.
Cázares-Kelly says her favorite thing about the new text messaging system is that, if for some reason their ballot isn’t returned to the Recorder’s office, then voters know that there’s something wrong. Throughout the entire process, if there is a problem with the ballot, the voter is made aware early on and is able to work with Cázares-Kelly’s office to figure out what’s going on.
The Recorder’s office also plans to begin using something known as e-poll books, a system that allows election workers to track voters in polling locations by seeing who’s checking in. E-poll books also ensure voting records are up to date so when voters check-in, they are on the list.
“That type of technology exists so that we’re not turning people away from early voting locations, making sure that we improve the communication with voters so that they know what their options are to cast their ballot,” Cázares-Kelly said.
Clearing up Confusion
This year, in particular, she said there was a lot of concern about casting ballots.
Voters were confused. They were hesitant to mail things through the United States Postal Service and wanted to know additional information before casting their ballot. And due to the pandemic, more voters utilized Arizona’s early voting system than in previous years.
Overall, the new Recorder says this increase in civic engagement is a good thing. She believes the more people participate in the civic process, the more likely it is that government bodies will be reflective of the communities they serve. However, she also believes that voting is only the first step to building a government that works for the people.
“People are sometimes surprised to hear me say that I actually don’t think voting is the most important thing you can do,” said Cázares-Kelly. “I think it’s the least that you can do. I think that what we’re seeing in Arizona is an engaged public.”
Cázares-Kelly’s win made headlines due to its historic nature. But for her, being the first Native American to hold a countywide office in Pima County felt bittersweet.
“Obviously, it’s an amazing honor,” Cázares-Kelly told The Copper Courier. “And it’s so exciting and such an achievement for me to be a member of the Tohono O’odham. But it’s also 2021.”
It is not lost on her in the slightest that she is the first Native American to hold an elected position in a county named Pima — derived from the O’odham phrase pi añi mac — in the heart of Tucson — from O’odham word Ts-iuk-shan— in the state of Arizona — from the O’odham’s Al Shon.
She believes communities need more of this representation like herself, elected representatives who can bring their lived experiences to offices such as hers, to better serve the needs of all members of our community.
“I’m so honored to have been voted in,” Cázares-Kelly said. “I didn’t ask people to vote for me because I’m Native American. I asked people to vote for me because I’m creative and I’m qualified and I’m dedicated and all of these other really great reasons, and the cherry on top of that — I’m Native.”