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How the pandemic has complicated voting access for millions of Native Americans

For many Native Americans living on tribal reservations, a home address is not a standard number and street name, like 735 Bleeker Street. Instead, it’s a series of instructions.

“They’ll say something like, I live off highway 86 by milepost 125 and a half,” said Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation and a Democratic candidate for Pima County recorder in Arizona.

These “nontraditional addresses” complicate things for indigenous voters during a time when the majority of states have moved to voting by mail to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. A record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail in the November election. States like Nevada, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota, which all include large stretches of tribal land, held their primary elections almost entirely by mail.

While these states will offer in-person voting options in November, the prioritization of mailed ballots creates hurdles for indigenous people — about 4.7 million of whom are of voting age — who already faced voting obstacles prior to the pandemic.

Most residents on reservations receive mail at P.O. Boxes instead of their homes. But the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation — which at 4,460 square miles is about the size of Connecticut — has a single post office. That’s not unique to this one reservation. A 2020 report by Native American Rights Fund determined that some members of the Navajo Nation must travel 140 miles roundtrip for postal services. Many do not have access to personal vehicles or public transportation to get them there, said Jean Schroedel, a political science professor at Claremont Graduate School who specializes in Native American voting rights.

“This is a group that has real serious challenges in trying to do voting by mail,” Schroedel said.

Traveling to the post office is not the only obstacle posed by mail voting. Sometimes several native families share a single P.O. Box. Others may have a P.O. Box located in a different state from their residence on a reservation because of how state lines cross through tribal land, said Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. This can create confusion and errors for election officials processing mailed ballots, she said.

Voting rights organizer O.J. Semans, whose organization Four Directions works to improve voting access for Native Americans, determined that delayed delivery times to the Arizona portion of the Navajo reservation effectively give tribal members about 15 days to return their ballots by mail instead of the 25 days designated by the state.

“Basically vote by mail works for middle class white people and does not work for Native Americans,” Semans said.

Advocates like Semans and Gerald Stiffarm of the Snake Butte Voter Coalition in Montana have fought to improve voting access for Native Americans, who for decades have been restricted by distance, isolation, lack of access to transportation and information, as well as strict voter registration requirements that restrict people without traditional addresses.

In recent years these efforts by activists seemed to be working. A 2012 lawsuit in Montana resulted in counties establishing “satellite” voting offices to serve native tribal lands. That made election participation more accessible for people with travel limitations or who have experienced confrontations with non-natives in the nearby towns, Stiffarm said. “With the satellite office here, the elderly people, the handicapped people, the people who have low self-esteem, they feel comfortable coming to the polling places,” he said.

In the 2018 midterms, the North Dakota secretary of state’s office reported that the majority native Sioux County saw a turnout of more than 52 percent, the highest since the 2008 presidential election. This came despite the state’s 2016 law that required people to show an ID with a residential address.

On the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation reservation that spans northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico, organizers in 2018 began working to provide addresses for the more than 50,000 residential and commercial buildings, according to reporting by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts. Daylene Redhorse, a Navajo member and a field organizer for the Rural Utah Project, said teams worked with Google to identify addressable buildings from satellite images. In the Utah portion of the Navajo reservation located in San Juan County, Redhorse said her team has addressed 2,733 structures so far, but that work was put on hold in March because of the pandemic.

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The pandemic hit Native Americans hard in other ways; 23 states with sufficient data showed infection rates 3.5 times higher among native populations than white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the presidential primaries, the pandemic also shuttered polling places across the country, including on reservations. The patchwork of vote-by-mail rules and requirements from state to state created confusion for voters in under-resourced communities around the country. In some places, high numbers of ballots were rejected for errors such as a missing signature.

The chaotic voting processes this spring and summer fueled the mistrust Native Americans already had for voting by mail. A 2020 report co-authored by Schroedel of Claremont Graduate School analyzing data from 2016 found that among native voters in Nevada and South Dakota 43 percent had complete trust in voting in person, compared with 27 percent who had complete trust in voting by mail and 30 percent who trusted dropping ballots off at an election office. The level of trust in a particular voting method had a significant effect on whether voters would participate in an election, the report determined.

Despite these challenges, organizers are pushing ahead in their effort to make voting easier for more vulnerable populations. De León of the Native American Rights Fund said providing safe, accessible in-person voting is a key factor. Schroedel said any mail-in voting should be accompanied by other options such as ballot drop boxes or “ballot collection,” which allows a person to collect multiple ballots from other community members and deliver them to election offices.

Legal teams representing native people fought in court against a Montana law that restricted ballot collection. In May, a judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the law from being enforced, and in late September a state court struck down the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments for another ballot collection case to determine whether to overturn an Arizona law that bans ballot collection, which the state refers to as “ballot harvesting.” In January, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court decision to strike down the law, but the ballot collection ban will remain in effect until the Supreme Court ruling. No date for the hearing has been disclosed by the court.

Another lawsuit, brought by members of the Navajo Nation, seeks to change Arizona’s requirement that mail ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted. Native Americans instead want ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by Nov. 13 to be counted, which a number of states have done to accommodate voting during the pandemic

The plaintiffs’ complaint pointed to the fact that there is one post office for every 707 square miles on the reservation, and that only about 29 percent of tribe members own cars. The lawsuit does not mention access to polling places for the general election. Navajo County, Arizona, is a 9,960-square-mile area of which about 6,500 square miles are reservation land for three different tribes — Navajo Nation, Hopi and Fort Apache. Between the three tribes the county will have eight early voting sites and 20 Election Day voting sites located on reservation land, according to the county recorder’s office.

In response to the Arizona lawsuit, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign filed a motion stating that extending the ballot return deadline “would sow confusion and delay in the administration of the upcoming General Election and all future elections.” The campaign did not return a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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A federal judge in late September denied the Navajo voters’ request for more time to count ballots, stating that Navajo voters have access to several ballot options and did not show a disparate burden to return them in time.

In an emailed statement, Arizona secretary of state Katie Hobbs said her office is working with Native communities to address the hurdles they face. “I understand their concerns, which is why we are prioritizing outreach efforts in parts of the state that don’t have consistent postal service,” she said.

This includes working to set up mobile voting sites and additional ballot box locations, as well as providing audio and text ballot translations for Apache and Navajo communities, Hobbs’ office said.

On Friday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a motion to expedite the appeal process, and is expected to hear arguments for the case in October, according to the court docket.

Amid the legal battles and uncertainty, with just four weeks remaining to vote, Native organizers and advocates expressed a mix of emotions about the weeks ahead.

The situation is “dire,” De León said. “It’s incredibly frustrating because these populations are completely ignored.”

Cázares-Kelly in Arizona expressed hope for high voter turnout despite the setbacks.

“I think I’m really excited and motivated by so many people recognizing that all of us have been subjected to voter suppression tactics,” Cázares-Kelly said. “It’s been really amazing to see so many people standing up to it, and arming themselves with voter education and trying to share that and empower others.”