Guest essay: Why I’m taking a stand against vote suppression
By Peterson Zah
I was 11 years old when two Mohave-Apache men, both veterans of World War II, fought all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court in 1948 to secure the right to vote for themselves and Indian people throughout Arizona. The case exposed Arizona’s long, ugly history of voter discrimination, and it upheld the unassailable notion that the right to vote – the most basic civil right in our democracy – is the safeguard of all our other rights.
In the nearly 70 years since our right to vote was secured, many protections have been enacted to defend Native Americans against discrimination and disenfranchisement. Change did not happen overnight. Creating these protections required time, political consensus, and even federal intervention. But change did come, and in 2012 we saw the highest Native American voter turnout in history.
Now, Republican officials in Arizona are trying to remove these protections, and the impact on our communities is devastating. We saw it in plain view this year when citizens stood in line for up to five hours during our March primary after Arizona election officials reduced the number of polling locations by 70 percent to cut costs.
That is why I have joined with the Democratic Party in filing a lawsuit to preserve these protections and defend the right to vote for me and my people. My thinking is simple and based upon those same fundamental truths I held as a boy – we need to reverse Arizona’s culture of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Discrimination is not a distant memory in Arizona. Conservatives banned bilingual education here in 2000, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has run roughshod over the rights of Native Americans and Hispanics with illegal traffic stop detentions, and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona has been leading the fight against Arizona’s restrictive voter ID law since 2006.
Removing protections that were long used to defend the right to vote is part of a much broader, deliberate and concerted effort by Republicans to reduce turnout among particular groups of voters on Election Day. And those voters are more vulnerable today than they have been in the past.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that has protected voters since the height of the Civil Rights movement. Before the Shelby v. Holder decision, Arizona was considered a “covered jurisdiction,” which meant that the U.S. Department of Justice would review any changes to voting laws to protect against precisely the type of irregularities voters faced earlier this year. But now, Republicans are using the opportunity to attack voting rights among groups who traditionally do not vote for them.
If our lawsuit is successful, it will restore federal election oversight of Maricopa County, and make it easier for voters to vote in locations near their homes or workplaces.
It would also reverse a new Arizona state law that makes it a felony for absentee voters to have signed and sealed ballots turned in for them, rather than having to mail them in – a practice used widely among the Navajo Nation and other tribes to vote early. This case is not just a response to what happened in March – it is about the future.
I believe that our country is stronger when every voice is heard and every vote is counted, and like those brave men who came before us, we will keep fighting to make sure the sacred right of every American to vote is protected. I’m proud to stand by the Democrats in this important battle.
Every voter deserves a voice. Every election matters. And when a state passes laws that make it unduly difficult to cast a ballot, that state is out-of-step with American values, the law, and the Constitution. As Democrats, we’re sending a clear signal that we will not stand for it.
Peterson Zah is executive staff assistant to President Russell Begaye.