Native American voters helped secure President Joe Biden’s narrow win in 2020, but Republican-backed proposals at the state legislature to restrict voting access could make the challenges tribal voters overcame last year even more daunting in 2022.

“We have the lowest voter turnout of any minority group in the country, period,” said Navajo Nation member and Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren. “We already have so many barriers in access to voting in general that any voter suppression bill would only increase that disparity.”

One bill would require proof of identification with mail-in ballots, which Torey Dolan said will create difficulties for Native voters. Dolan is a Native Vote fellow at Arizona State University’s Indian Law Clinic and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

“Photocopying is not really an option for folks that do not have printers or computers, let alone the Native American folks in Arizona that don’t have access to electricity or running water,” said Dolan.

The alternative forms of ID the bill would allow, like utility bills, bank or property tax statements, also tend to be less accessible to Native Americans, she said. Natives living on reservations don’t pay state property taxes, and utility bills just aren’t a given.

“Arizona election law did not consider the lived realities of Native Americans before 2020,” said Dolan. 

She’s seen an uptick in efforts to engage Indigenous voters and raise awareness, but the actions of the legislature are a different story.

“A lot of bills are moving forward in ways that will impact Native Americans, in part because I think they just do not take into consideration that life on reservations in Arizona is very different than life off-reservation,” Dolan said.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Arizona GOP legislators introduced 23 bills in 2021 that would restrict voting access, seven of which are still moving.

Blackwater-Nygren knows the price many Navajos pay to reach the polls. Her sister lives about 15 miles off the highway and drives a dirt road to reach her polling location. Same-day voter registration could help lighten that burden, but the legislature seems to be heading in the opposite direction: A bill that would preemptively outlaw same-day registration cleared the House of Representatives in March before stalling in the Senate.

“When you have to go back to the same place twice for anything, we all know it’s a nightmare,” she said. “Take the COVID vaccine, right? Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just gonna be so hard to get people to come back for their second dose.’ And so it’s the same thing here.”

For Blackwater-Nygren, it’s important to make a stand for her community on the floor, even though the political dynamics — Republicans have one-seat majorities in the state House and Senate and Republican Doug Ducey is governor — mean she and other Democrats are largely powerless to stop bills from advancing. Protecting election rights and voter access is “so controversial” in the state legislature, she said, that she’s holding out hope that the “For the People Act of 2021,” Democrats’ mammoth voting rights bill, will pass in the U.S. Senate.

“The Native vote in Arizona was instrumental in this past election. You can’t deny that. …

We were heard on a national scale,” Blackwater-Nygren said. “And, so, the more we talk about voter suppression and low Native voter turnout, the more we build the Native vote, the more strength and the more power it’ll have in the future.”

Arizona swung to Joe Biden by a bit more than 10,000 votes last November. 

In the three counties that overlap the Navajo and Hopi Nations — Apache, Coconino and Navajo — voter turnout rose 7 to 10 percentage points from 2016 to 2020. In Apache County, 75% of the nearly 72,000 residents (that’s around 54,000 people)  are Native American. Precincts there went to Biden by 68.9% on average.

According to data from All Voting is Local, national Native turnout was up 8 percentage points in 2020. That was in spite of a series of challenges. Talk of moving to mail-in voting raised red flags for Native communities hit the hardest by the pandemic, and they knew they’d have to find another way to safely exercise their right to vote.

“I know the Native vote turnout and the Native vote effect kind of took people nationally by surprise. But there’s been a lot of folks doing the groundwork for a long time for this,” said Dolan. She spent Election Day heading up Native Vote Arizona’s election protection hotline command center, waiting on the phone to ring.

Around 6 a.m., a volunteer phoned in from the Chinle polling location in the Navajo Nation. She said she watched a crowd gather as the polls failed to open for an hour. When they finally got up and running, some people had already left. The command center team coordinated with the Navajo Nation, who went to court to keep the location open an extra hour until 8:15 p.m..

But when a Navajo woman arrived to vote at 8:05 p.m., poll workers tried to turn her away. The volunteer called Dolan and put her on the phone with the workers.

“There’s a court order. It’s been extended, she’s there on time. You have to let her vote,” Dolan said, recounting what she told the poll workers. She stayed on the line with the workers while her team reached out to the secretary of state’s office, who called the county, who called the poll workers and told them to allow the woman to vote.

“Every vote is worth it,” Dolan said. 

Barriers to voting on the reservation persist

Before this year, getting the vote out in person was central to pre-election groundwork in tribal communities. 

Alexander Castillo-Nunez, who runs voting efforts at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, said in 2018 volunteers went to tribal lands during pow wows, fairs and rodeos. Last March, they realized they’d have to change strategies — and that’s when they started pushing to make the online voter registration form work better for tribal communities.

ITCA had been so focused on in-person registration because the state’s online system didn’t work as well for many tribal voters as the paper one. Unlike the physical form, the online form doesn’t allow citizens to use tribal-issued IDs to register — it only allows state-issued IDs. 

Addresses were another problem.

“A lot of folks live and this is the physical description of their address ‘one and a half miles northwest of the Ganado chapter house,’” Dolan said.

The paper registration form allowed voters to draw non-standard addresses on a grid. As of a few weeks before the registration deadline this fall, the online system did, too, thanks to the lobbying efforts by ITCA, Native Vote and other groups.

Unfortunately the address problem didn’t end with voter registration. Mail-in voting presented a huge issue.

“At home mail delivery is not really a thing for most of these communities … people can live 45 minutes to two hours away from their mailbox, they may share their post office box with 10 to 15 people,” Dolan said.

Most mail takes about 10 days to reach the Navajo Nation and another 10 to get back to the county office, Dolan said. Since ballots are mailed just 27 days before election day, Navajo Nation voters face what Dolan calls an early “invisible deadline” and have a very small window to pick up and return their ballots. Long drives to P.O. boxes, often on dirt roads sometimes made impassable by rain, don’t help.

Organizers’ solution to inaccessible mail-in voting and the threat of COVID-19? Early in-person voting. Lots of it.

Of the state’s 22 tribes and 20 reservations, close to half straddle county borders. For members of the Navajo Nation, which spans three different Arizona counties, the election operated three completely different ways. This can confuse voters, especially when non-standard addresses mean the state registers them to vote across a county line.

One woman called the voter hotline on Election Day to find that, although she’d meant to register at her home address in Navajo County, the state had lumped her into the precinct of her P.O. Box in Apache County. She had to drive hours away to vote. 

“If turnout is up, it’s not because there weren’t barriers. It’s because people were determined to overcome them,” Dolan said.

Native Vote and several other organizations worked with tribes and counties to get them talking. They asked for mobile voter units in trailers and ballot drop boxes on tribal lands. Native Vote and ITCA also distributed voter safety kits with masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, their hotline number and other information.

The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community worked with eager county officials to set up drive-through early voting and emergency voting the weekend and Monday before election day. 

“Sometimes you get really responsive county recorders. And sometimes you get county recorders that are going to fight you tooth and nail all the way to court,” Dolan said. 

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez closed the only early voting site on the land of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe weeks before the 2018 primary. Dolan said they’d been asking her to reopen the site since then. When Rodriguez remained unwilling to reopen the site in 2020, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe filed a lawsuit. By then, only weeks remained before the November election; they didn’t get their site back.

But Pima County elected a new recorder in 2020, one who wants to repair tribal relationships. Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. She got her start in voter outreach there and wants to focus on the future of her office.

“There’s a wonderful foundation here and public servants who are really excited to serve,” said Cázares-Kelly. “And it’s fun, you know, it’s like, what difference does it make when a Native is in charge?”

Just a few years ago, you’d find Cázares-Kelly standing outside the post office with voter forms, or on the phone with the Recorder’s office, trying to get answers about early voting on the reservation. She spent her time laboring for access to the vote, access that her own grandmother didn’t have until she was in her late 50s.

Although Native Americans sued Arizona in 1948 to remove provisions in its constitution which barred them from voting, literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation still kept them out of the polls. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 became the first substantial defense of Native rights to vote, and its 1975 amendments finally attempted to include minority language speakers in American elections.

“My grandmother … was a brilliant woman, she’s hilarious, she’s a community leader, and she was amazing. But she didn’t speak English. And so she did not have rights to a language translator until 1975, which really wasn’t that long ago,” said Cázares-Kelly. 

“When we talk about Native voter outreach,” she said, “…we really have to recognize that we’re not all starting from the same starting line. Some people can be 10th generation voters and things like that. And within our community, we’re talking two or three.”

Language is another reason many of the proposed changes to Arizona election materials that may feel small to some like edits to the affidavit voters sign are not so small to many Indigenous activists and their communities. Every change requires new translations and mass voter education campaigns, which take time.

“The 2022 elections are closer than everybody thinks,” said Dolan.