Democracy in ‘Suspense’: Why Arizona’s Native Voters Are in Peril

Democracy in ‘Suspense’: Why Arizona’s Native Voters Are in Peril

Democracy in ‘Suspense’: Why Arizona’s Native Voters Are in Peril

From voter ID laws to inaccessible polling stations, Native voters in Arizona face a cascading series of hurdles to participating in the November election.


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.

Tribes and Tribulations

Race is ubiquitous around election time—especially when it comes to disenfranchisement. But few people understand the unique position that Native Americans share with the federal government. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today, President Obama explained what he called “a turning point in the relationship between our nations,” alluding to the fact that Native American nations, tribes and bands hold tribal sovereignty. Obama’s interview—the first for a president while in office with a Native news outlet—reflected an understanding of Native people beyond the scope of race, and acknowledged the distinctive government to government requirements between the United States and Native nations.

And it’s this particular relationship with the federal government that sometimes puts Native nations at odds with the fifty states. The Navajo Nation, for example, extends over Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. But because individual Secretaries of State oversee federal elections, the Navajo, or Diné people, have three different sets of rules for registration, early voting and voter identification.

In Arizona, voters can opt to show one of four unexpired types of photo IDs that bear the elector’s name and address—including a photo tribal enrollment card. The Navajo Nation, however, began issuing these cards only in November of last year. Leonard Benally, who manages the Navajo nation Office of Vital Records, says that 804 Navajo Nation ID cards have been issued to far. That’s far less than 1 percent of the more than 300,000 Diné enrolled in the Navajo Nation.

Arizona is a “non strict” voter ID state, which accepts two forms of non-photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Included in the list are vehicle registration and insurance cards, bank and utility statements dated within three months prior to the election, and a voter’s property tax statement.

But many Diné living on the Navajo Nation do not own vehicles, leaving them without registration or insurance cards. A 2008 report estimated that in Apache County alone, nearly one-quarter of all Navajo families lived below the poverty line—and that more than 17 percent of homes lacked plumbing. Although it’s hard to estimate the number of Diné without access to electricity, it’s likely that even when power is available in remote rural locations, one in four families may not be able to afford it.

So utility bills aren’t always easy to come by. And, because the federal government holds the title to Navajo Nation land, Diné do not pay property tax if they live on the Nation. Without common access to vehicle registration, insurance cards, utility bills, or property tax statements, Diné might be best off using Navajo Nation ID cards—but the program that issues them is less than one year old, and obtaining a card costs $17, which puts these IDs out of reach for the Diné who live below the poverty line.

On its face, Arizona’s soft voter ID law appears to give its electorate so many options that it’s hard for some to imagine not being able to cast a ballot based on the requirements. But the law systematically obscures Native voter power by demanding documents that many Diné simply don’t have access to. It’s hard enough to live in a rural area without access to basic utilities or transportation—but doing so shouldn’t disenfranchise these citizens from voting.

The Long Walk of Arizona’s Native Voter Suppression

It wasn’t until 1924 that all Native people in the United States were granted full citizenship, which included the right to vote. But Arizona refused to allow Natives to register—even those Navajo code talkers who served in World War II. An Arizona Supreme Court decision in 1948 affirmed the right of suffrage as a basic civil right. Yet the state continued to enforce literacy tests, which disenfranchised up to 90 percent of Natives at that time. And although the 1965 Voting Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate against any potential voter, it wasn’t until after a series of lawsuits that, in 1972—just forty years ago—that Arizona finally repealed its literacy tests.

Soon after, Diné voters who did not read or write were provided interpretation, and began signing their ballots with their thumbprint. One of those voters is Agnes Laughter.

Laughter, an 80-year-old grandmother who has only ever spoken Navajo, was denied her right to cast a ballot in 2006 because she didn’t have any identification other than her thumbprint. Two years previously, Arizona passed an anti-immigrant law that also included a requirement that voters show identification at the polls—the first law of its kind in the United States. Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, who directs the Indian Legal Clinic at ASU’s law school in Phoenix, represented Laughter in a lawsuit, which resulted in a settlement that included expanding the kinds of identification that Natives in Arizona could use to vote.

A few months after the 2008 settlement, Laughter was resolute on obtaining a state-issued photo ID. Because Laughter was born at home, she has no original birth certificate—and getting a delayed birth certificate proved difficult. Laughter, who lives in the small rural community of Chilchinbeto, lived hours away from the office that could issue the document. Once she did obtain it, she traveled to the Tuba City Motor Vehicles Department, only to learn that office couldn’t issue rushed IDs.

Laughter finally made it to Flagstaff, where the person behind the Motor Vehicles Department desk at first insisted she couldn’t be issued an ID with the delayed certificate of birth she provided. Her attorney, Ferguson-Bohnee, explained that the documentation was, in fact, valid, and Laughter finally received a state-issued photo ID. In the end, it took about twelve people more than ten hours of work—providing rides, language interpretation, legal assistance—to help Agnes Laughter get her identification.

This year, Ferguson-Bohnee’s Indian Legal Clinic is heading Arizona’s Native Vote Election Protection Program, which will likely see a myriad of complaints like Laughter’s as November approaches. Apache County, where the population is more than 70 percent Native—the highest in Arizona, and one of the highest in the US—has consistently failed to comply with portions of the Voting Rights Act. The Department of Justice monitored the primary election there, and although the DOJ doesn’t announce the counties it will monitor until a few days before the election, sources tell me they will be there again in November.

A Matter of Boundaries

There’s more at work than voter ID laws and dubious suspense lists in creating structural barriers to voting for Diné. The Navajo Nation has long-established centers of local government called chapter houses. Formally created in 1927 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to mimic pre-existing forms of local governance, the Navajo Nation has improved on the original chapter house design. There are now 110 chapter houses, where Diné vote for local presidents, vice presidents, treasurers and other key positions of power.

Chapter elections are taken very seriously, and in order to maximize turnout for all elections, the Navajo Nation aligned its tribal elections with state and federal elections. It’s worked well in many places, where county officials will use chapter houses to hold state and federal elections in one room, while tribal elections are held in another area of the same chapter house or in an adjacent building. But county precinct don’t always match up with chapter houses.

Counties use their own data to set precincts and polling places—but chapter houses are more than a place to cast a ballot: they’re civic centers tied to tradition and meaning on the Navajo nation. While it’s hard to imagine that most people in the United States would organize their political lives around their voting precincts, the opposite is true on the Navajo Nation, where many Diné feel tied to their chapter houses. In that way, chapter house boundaries precede precincts.

“It’s a matter of [counties] not respecting the political boundaries of the Navajo Nation,” says Leonard Gorman, who directs the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

The Commission was created after decades of “Indian rolling” hate crimes, where young white teenagers beat and rolled inebriated Navajo off of cliffs, often without consequence, in border Navajo towns. After a police officer killed a Navajo man in 2006, the Commission was established.

Aside from investigating discrimination complaints and human rights violations, Gorman and this staff of eight people also conduct public education and advocacy campaigns designed to increase Navajo voter turnout. As I sit across from him in his trailer office near the Nation’s capital of Window Rock, Gorman turns his laptop towards me to show me map after map that illustrates a problem I had been hearing about for weeks in Apache County: Navajo voters often have to travel to two distinct locations in order to cast their ballots. Gorman starts with a Navajo Nation map without boundaries, then adds a layer for chapter house boundaries, and another for county precinct boundaries. The resulting map is now littered with pockets of people who need to drive in opposite directions in order to vote in tribal and federal elections.

Take, for instance, the tiny rural town of Chinle. If you drive through Chinle, which is near the Four Corner region, the only political ads you’ll see will be for November’s chapter election. No Obama or Romney signs, and no ads for state offices, either. During August’s primary, more than 33 percent of local Diné cast their ballots for their chapter—a slightly higher turnout than the rest of Arizona posted for its primary vote.

The August vote was notable because the Democratic ticket included a race between newcomer Wenona Benally and former US Representative Ann Kirkpatrick. Benally, a Harvard law school graduate who grew up in the small town of Kayenta, was aiming to be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress. And many people in Chinle—just one town over from Kayenta—know her name. However, when many of them went to their chapter house on the day of the primary to cast choices for their tribal election, they found that Benally’s name wasn’t on the ballot. That’s when they realized their assigned state precinct was a few miles down the road, which discouraged many voters from taking the time to drive or get a ride there, to vote again.

But it gets worse. Benally tells me that her modestly funded campaign tried to place volunteers at key chapter houses in order to provide rides and encouragement for voters to head to their county assigned polling location. Some of those voters, however, had polling places that were as far as fifty miles away. Benally lost in August’s primary.

Gorman confirms what Bennally and several voters told me. He shows me a map where some voters have to drive one-and-a-half hours one way in order to participate in both tribal and federal elections. His position is that counties need to change their boundaries to match chapter boundaries—but so far, no county has agreed.

According to data gathered by the Commission, for every 100 potential voters, twenty decline to participate for whatever reason. An additional fifteen may decline to vote due to unforeseeable issues on Election Day, including bad weather or lack of transportation. Of the sixty-five that are left, another twenty don’t vote because of confusion, and will only cast one ballot—likely for the tribal election over the federal election. That leaves just forty-five dependable voters out of 100. Gorman says that number would increase if counties agreed to respect the political boundaries set by the Nation.

The Vitality of the Native Vote

Although few viewers likely noticed it, the vice presidential candidates mentioned two Native Americans during last week’s debate: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Chinook), who was killed in Libya, and an unnamed private serving in Afghanistan from the Menominee Indian Reservation, whom Representative Paul Ryan invoked. Any references to Native Americans ended there—and it’s unclear whether either candidate understands the importance of the Native vote in this upcoming election.

Senate candidates are neck-to-neck in four states that just so happen to have some of the largest percentages of Native Americans in their populations: Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota and Montana. In Arizona, Democrat Richard Carmona is hoping to beat Republican Jeff Flake—and the state’s Native voters could mark the difference. Carmona has surprisingly been pushing so far forward in Arizona that Bill Clinton stumped there for him last week. And as Obama inches ahead in Arizona, there’s an indication the red state could go blue on Election Day. But that would require that Native voters, who tend to vote Democratic, be able to fend off the many hurdles that discourage them from participating.

And then, there’s Naomi White. In between the first time we talked on the phone, and a week later when we met at a café on the edge of the Gila River Indian Community on October 11, White received a voter notice in her Window Rock PO Box. It indicated she was, indeed, registered. The notice informed her about “important election dates,” including the Arizona’s special election on June 10, and the August 28 primary—which occurred nearly four months and one month, respectively, before she received the mailer.

In the course of one year, White went from thinking she was a registered voter to being told that she had to clarify her physical address before she had the right to cast a ballot, to being disenfranchised in two elections, to finally receiving correspondence indicating that she’s been placed on the Permanent Early Voting List in Arizona. As White prepares to make her choices for this year’s races, she’s worried whether, after already being denied her right to vote, she will indeed be able to cast a ballot in November.

And White isn’t alone. On the condition of anonymity, more than one election official told me that they doubt that Apache County’s unique form of voter caging is an accurate use of suspense lists—which are called inactive lists in other states. These lists exist for already registered voters who are suspected of having moved or passed away, and should therefore be removed from the voting rolls. A scenario that Apache County voter registration coordinator Geneva Honea explains should place registrants on a “pending list”—which doesn’t put them at risk of having their name permanently purged from the rolls. Although the Department of Justice will neither confirm nor deny whether it is already investigating Apache County’s suspense list, Honea told me the department has already contacted her, wanting answers.

But the people who will probably want answers the most are those who supposedly live in homes that are in locations too obscure to be counted. They won’t have an assigned polling place—and if they never receive the proper mailer, it’s conceivable that they will be purged from the voter rolls altogether. At a time when Arizona’s Native population will help decide the future of the Senate, and even the White House, it’s not just those 528 people who are in suspense: it’s democracy as a whole. 

For to see just how hard it is for one Navajo elder to obtain a voter ID, watch this video produced by Hillary Abe and Aura Bogado.

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