It’s been nearly 100 years since The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 gave Native American men and women full citizenship — and the right to vote — but those rights are still being suppressed, according to Navajo and Gila River tribal leaders, whose comments were first reported on by Cronkite News.
Appearing before the House subcommittee on elections earlier this month in Phoenix, the leaders cited Arizona’s strict photo ID laws, a scarcity of voting locations near the state’s 22 Native American reservations, and Arizona’s ban on ballot collection as concerted efforts to suppress the Native vote.
Stephen Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said that Arizona’s Native American population regards voting as something of a family tradition, but noted that the various restrictions make it more difficult for them to vote.
Arizona law states that members of federally-recognized tribes are not required to have an address or photo on their identification card, but Patricia Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University, who also testified at the congressional hearing, told KJZZ in September that poll workers don’t always correctly apply the law, leading to confusion.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez also said the photo ID law is an impediment to Native voters. “If someone from the Navajo Nation submits a ballot on Election Day without a photo ID, they have to go through so much additional documentation for their vote to be counted,” Nez said.
Lewis also said that voting information is frequently in English, which doesn’t help those Natives who speak indigenous languages. More than 50% of Arizona’s native population falls into this category, according to Ferguson-Bohnee.
Perhaps the largest obstacle to the Native American vote, however, is simply a lack of polling places. Arizona had 400 polling locations in 2005; today, there are only 60, according to Darrell Hill, Arizona’s policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
This precipitous drop is owed in large part to the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, which struck down parts of the federal Voting Rights Act, including federal oversight of election laws in Arizona. In the three years following that ruling, Arizona shuttered 212 polling locations, according to a 2016 report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund.
Pima County, which is home to roughly 44,000 Native Americans according to the U.S. Census Bureau, had 62 fewer voting locations in 2016 than 2012, making it the nation’s leading closer of polling places.
Even when Natives are able to vote in person, they often have to travel more than 60 miles over poorly-maintained roads to reach a polling site, Nez and Lewis said. “There is no public transportation here on the reservations. In some parts of the Navajo Nation, only 1 in 10 families owns a vehicle,” Nez said.
While Arizona’s vote-by-mail system has fewer restrictions — it only requires a signature — Arizona’s Indian country has limited transportation and mail system, resulting in frequent delays and making it more difficult for tribal members to vote by mail.
Even signing up to vote by mail is more difficult for Natives, as more than half of tribal lands lack internet access, according to a study cited by Ferguson-Bohnee.
Most recently, in 2016, the state banned “ballot collection,” a practice in which individuals collect and turn in another voter’s completed ballot, with the voter’s permission. Phoenix-area U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz), who also appeared at the hearing, criticized the ban, telling ABC15 that the practice provided residents of rural tribal communities the opportunity to vote in elections when they might not have otherwise been able to.
These impediments to voting are nothing new for Arizona’s Native population. Even though the U.S. granted all Native Americans full citizenship in 1924, Arizona’s Native American population wasn’t allowed to vote until 1948 and still had to pass English literacy tests until Congress outlawed them in 1970, via an amendment to the Voting Rights Act.
But Arizona continued to slow-walk its attempt to integrate Native American voters. Congress again amended the Voting Rights Act in 1975, mandating that translators be made available to help voters who spoke indigenous languages, but the two counties in Arizona with the largest Native American populations waited until 1989 to actually hire indigenous people for those roles.
Apache, Cococino and Navajo counties also took suppressing the Native vote into their own hands, according to Katherine Osburn, associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University.
In a recent interview with ASU Now, Osburn highlighted Apache County’s 1975 attempt to gerrymander its voting districts to dilute the Navajo vote. The gerrymander was ultimately struck down by the District Court of Arizona as unconstitutional.
These obstacles seem to have had the desired impact; Native American voter turnout in Arizona state and local elections is only about half the rate of Arizonans as a whole, according to an analysis from One Arizona, a nonprofit organization focused on civic engagement.
Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Phoenix) blasted Arizona’s record of Native American outreach. “I think it’s unfortunate our tribal leadership was not reached out to. When important decisions like this are made at the state Capitol that affect Native Americans, nobody thought to ask for the opinions of our tribal leaders, and that is exactly why the voting rights act was and is so important,” Stanton told Cronkite News.
Despite a century of roadblocks, Arizona’s Native Americans continue to fight for their right to vote and could play an increasingly pivotal role in determining future election outcomes in Arizona. KJZZ recently reported that Native American tribes and voter advocacy groups are working to boost turnout ahead of the 2020 elections by talking to county officials about election infrastructure and educating voters on how to cast a ballot.
Issues very clearly remain, however.
Nez and Lewis used their time at the congressional hearing to call for the passage of the proposed Native American Voting Rights Act, which they said would solve some of the problems their tribes face.
The legislation would authorize tribal ID cards for voting, open more polling locations, loosen restrictions on mail-in ballots, and add translators for Native speakers. The bill would furthermore establish a Native American Voting Rights Task Force, which would be charged with strengthening Native voter registration, education and election participation.
The bill would also provide funding for federal election observers and mandate the Department of Justice to consult annually with tribes on “issues related to voting.”
The Native American Voting Rights Act is stalled in the Republican-led U.S. Senate, where its future remains uncertain.