The Chinle Agency Election Administration on the Navajo Nation. Photo: Aura Bogado
Arizona’s Apache County is obscuring the collective power of the Native vote in an unprecedented way. The County, which has previously violated the Voting Rights Act, has inaccurately placed more than 500 people who attempted to register on a list that could permanently purge these would-be voters from the rolls. And most, if not all, of those affected are Navajo.
Naomi White wanted to vote in Arizona’s primary in August, and wants to vote on Election Day in November. White had previously voted in Utah, and when she moved back to live on the Navajo Nation’s capital of Window Rock, she registered to vote in Arizona when she updated her license last year. But she told me she never received correspondence confirming her registration.
The 30-year-old attorney still primarily resides in Window Rock, but works some 300 miles away as a prosecutor for the Gila River Indian Community. Sometime before August’s primary, she called the Apache County Recorder’s office to see if she could vote early in the election, since she would be out in the field on the date of the primary. She says she was told that the physical address she listed was too obscure, and the Recorder couldn’t assign her to a precinct.
Like most people living on the Navajo Nation, White uses a PO Box. The US Postal Service doesn’t deliver to homes because many of them are far off from paved highways where there are no streets—much less street names. The occurrence is so common that Arizona’s voter registration form includes a large box on which people can draw the location of their home, in order to help identify their precinct. White says that after she was told she couldn’t be assigned a precinct, she asked of she could vote absentee instead. She says the Recorder’s office told her that she wasn’t technically registered, and couldn’t vote by mail, either. As a result, White was disenfranchised from August’s primary. According to Geneva Honea, who coordinates voter registration for the Apache County Recorder’s office, at least 528 people are in the same predicament as White.
“They’ve been placed on the suspense list because they didn’t provide a legit address,” Honea tells me. Suspense lists are similar to inactive lists in other states, and grants a grace period to either vote or be removed from the voter rolls. “When our office receives a registration that doesn’t include a clear physical address, [the potential voter is] sent correspondence to clarify the location where they reside.”
Honea adds that the mailers are sent right after a registration form is received for which a clear physical address cannot be identified. She also tells me that people respond daily—but only by the handful. If they clarify their physical address to Honea’s satisfaction, they are registered and will be given a polling location. For her part, Naomi White says she never got such a letter. With less than a month before Election Day, more than 500 mostly Navajo voters who want to vote have been placed on a suspense list that bars them from doing so.
The Justice Department is reportedly looking into the fate of those voters, and if the department’s track record on voting rights throughout this election is any indication, it is likely to intervene. But the challenge of voters like Noami White point to larger concerns for Native voters in the state, where their franchise seems to regularly hang in suspense.