Native voters are clearing hurdles. That’s why some politicians want to make them higher.
By John Echohawk
Native American voters are waking up to their political power — which means that some politicians threatened by this new reality are trying to take it away from them. State legislatures across the country have introduced bills that target and restrict Native Americans’ ability to vote. Leading this discriminatory charge has been Arizona, now backstopped by a Supreme Court that upheld two discriminatory state laws and, in the process, made it harder to challenge new obstacles put in the path of Native voters.
It’s imperative to understand that Native voters already face clear and documented voting barriers unfathomable to most Americans.
Native communities in Arizona and across the country do not have mail delivered to their homes. They have to drive great distances, often upward of 50 miles — much farther, in general, than their White counterparts — to register, vote and access a post office. This isolation is compounded by poorly maintained, dirt roads that often become impassable.
Making these unreasonably difficult circumstances near insurmountable is crushing poverty; in Arizona, 32.9 percent of Natives live in poverty, more than twice the statewide average. With poverty like that, affording a tank of gas is hard, never mind accessing a working vehicle.
It’s astonishing, given these inequities, that Native voters have managed in recent years to demonstrate their political power. To take one recent example, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) would not have won without the Native vote. Sinema beat incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally by a narrow 55,000 votes. On-reservation precincts in Arizona cast 67,996 votes, the vast majority of whom voted for Sinema.
That political power was earned despite the continued suppression of the Native vote by these hurdles. Now, state legislators, apparently fearful of a fully enfranchised Native electorate, have chosen to attack the strategies that Native Americans use to overcome these unreasonable barriers.
The ban on ballot collection and out-of-precinct voting at issue in the Supreme Court case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, illustrates Native disenfranchisement. Ballot collection, or the picking up and dropping off of each other’s ballots, is the most logical way for voters on rural reservations with no mail access, no vehicle access and facing long distances to vote. Removing this avenue to returning a ballot disproportionately affects Native voters.
Out-of-precinct voting also disproportionately affects some Native-majority precincts where Native voters are often mistakenly placed in the wrong precinct because many homes on reservations do not have addresses. The resulting confusion and disenfranchisement that arise in Native communities are depressingly predictable. They are also the intended effect.
Arizona has long discriminated against Native Americans. It was one of the last states to allow Native Americans to vote at all, instead arguing in a 1948 case that two World War II veterans were incompetent to vote because they were Native. In 1973, Arizona’s Apache County refused to seat a Navajo county commissioner in relevant part because he was Native.
Nor is this discrimination ancient history. In 2020, Arizona’s Pima County closed the voting center on the Pascua Yaqui reservation even though most of the cost would have been covered by the secretary of state. Rather than simply providing the ballots and staff to operate the site, the county spent more than $180,000 in legal fees fighting the Pascua Yaqui’s attempt to gain on-reservation voting access.
Indeed, because of its repeated voting violations, Arizona was covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and was required to preclear all voting regulations with the Justice Department. Before the gutting of Section 5 by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, Arizona tried to preclear the ballot collection ban at issue in Brnovich. Scared off by the Justice Department’s request for information on the law’s discriminatory impacts, the Arizona legislature withdrew the request.
Following Shelby County and the removal of preclearance requirements, they were able to pass the law without interference. And last week, the Supreme Court finished the hit job on Native voting rights by upholding the ban on ballot collection and out-of-precinct voting despite both provisions’ discriminatory impacts.
Portentously, the majority on the Supreme Court acknowledged that the laws had that effect, yet determined not enough people were impacted for the discrimination to matter. All eligible U.S. citizens deserve to determine the future of our democracy. No Native communities are too small to justify discrimination against them.
Congress must act to restore the Voting Rights Act in the face of this assault on our country’s democratic principles. A fully functioning Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act would have prevented Arizona’s discriminatory laws from going into effect in the first place, and a fully functioning Section 2 would prevent similar abuses in the future. It must also pass the Native American Voting Rights Act, which mandates voting access for geographically isolated tribal voters.
At the very least, Native Americans deserve a fair chance to elect representatives who care enough to enact the change they so desperately need.