Native Americans Face Unique Barriers To Voting

Oct 11, 2016
Originally published on October 16, 2016 9:43 am
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Native Americans in Arizona won the right to vote in 1948. It wasn't until decades later, though - 1976 - that they got open access to the polls thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Even today, Native voters in Arizona and around the country face some unusual barriers when it comes to voting. Carrie Jung from member station KJZZ reports.

CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: A freeway exit number and directions to a convenience store were all I had to find Lori Riddle's house. She doesn't have a standard address. Riddell lives on the Gila River Indian Community in central Arizona. The reservation spans almost 600 square miles. And much of it is rural.

LORI RIDDLE: We're used to giving directions out here by landmarks. There's a tree. There's two trees. There's a big bush with purple flowers on it.

JUNG: Not having an address is actually pretty common for many people who live on Native American reservations in this country. And while Riddle laughs now, when it comes to voting, it has caused some serious problems at the polls when the description of her address on her voter registration doesn't always match county voter rolls.

RIDDLE: They've tried to turn me away on a few occasions, even though they knew me.

JUNG: And it's not just a lack of standard addresses. The size of some reservations can also make it hard to vote.

JASON CHAVEZ: On the Tohono O'odham Nation, you're talking about 2.8 million acres, where your nearest polling place could be up to 10, 15 miles away from where you live.

JUNG: Jason Chavez is from the Tohono O'odham Nation south of Tucson. According to census data, about 1 in 5 people on the reservation don't have access to a car. So that distance can be a deal-breaker. Chavez used to work for the county recorder's office and spent a lot of time in 2014 trying to solve problems like this, including manning mobile early-voting sites.

CHAVEZ: I was traveling in a beat-up, old Ford Explorer from the county fleet, traveling to different areas on the nation, making sure that people had access to a polling place or an early-voting site.

JUNG: Beyond complications that arise from living in rural areas, access to language translation is also a concern because mail-in ballots in Arizona are not translated into native languages.

PATTY FERGUSON-BOHNEE: If you're a Navajo speaker or an Apache speaker or an O'odham speaker, and you need language assistance, the only way that you're really getting that is if you go to the polls on Election Day.

JUNG: Patty Ferguson-Bohnee is the director of the Indian Legal Clinic at the Arizona State University School of Law.

FERGUSON-BOHNEE: People don't all have access to the internet or phones or even electricity. And so when we make laws, we're not thinking about - how does this impact rural Arizona?

JUNG: Since Native Americans were granted the right to vote, there have been close to 100 lawsuits filed across the country regarding unequal access to polls.

FERGUSON-BOHNEE: We're the first people of the United States. And when people face these roadblocks, sometimes, they're not empowered. And we want to empower people. We're a democracy.

JUNG: Ferguson-Bohnee says when it comes to open access to polls in Native communities, our country still has a long way to go. But, she adds, things are at least moving in the right direction. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung reporting from Casa Blanca, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.