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Guest Column: Arizona’s restrictive laws hurt Navajo voters. Will Congress step in to help us?

By Jonathan Nez and Teresa Leger Fernández

October 14, 2021

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic reached new heights across the country and in tribal communities, the Navajo people overcame major barriers and turned out in record numbers in the 2020 election.

The stakes were high. The pandemic had magnified centuries of unkept promises by the federal government to the First People of this country in terms of health care and other obligations.

Our democracy can only work when all voters are informed and provided the same opportunity to elect leaders that they believe will act in their best interest – leaders that will listen to and hear tribal nations.

Navajo people have long battled for the fundamental right to vote. In Arizona, Native Americans could not fully participate in the voting process until 1970 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act prohibition on Arizona’s literacy tests as a voter qualification.

But in the twisted tradition of so many years of persecution and exclusion, Republican lawmakers in states across our nation – including in Arizona – are deliberately making it harder for our tribal citizens to vote.

Many Navajos must travel to turn in ballots

A recent report from the House Administration Elections subcommittee documented how restrictive voting laws target Native Americans and other communities of color: closing polling places, purging eligible voters and creating burdensome requirements for on-reservation voters.

The report cited the closure of 320 polling places in Arizona since 2012 – the second-most in the country – a majority of them in counties where there are a high percentage of Latino voters.

The Supreme Court recently reversed a lower court decision and upheld two Arizona laws that banned collection of absentee ballots by anyone other than a relative or caregiver and allowed Arizona to throw out ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

The GOP’s own lawyers admitted in oral argument that Arizona’s restrictions were intended to give Republicans a competitive advantage.

These restrictions, aimed at giving Republicans a competitive advantage, do so at the expense of Navajo people. Due to the remote settings, many Navajo citizens must travel long distances to drop off absentee ballots. Those without physical addresses are also more likely to be placed in the wrong precinct.

Pass the Freedom to Vote Act

The Supreme Court’s decision is a detriment to the Voting Rights Act, but Congress has the constitutional authority to save the Voting Rights Act, and in doing so, protect the ability of Native Americans to have their voices heard on Election Day.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 1, the For the People Act, and HR 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, to restore the Voting Rights Act provisions the Supreme Court struck down.

These bills are the collective conscience of our democracy, but are being blocked by Senate Republicans.

Now, the Senate has the opportunity to pass the new Freedom to Vote Act and take a step towards protecting and reaffirming our sacred right to vote.

It’s our hope that Senate Republicans will see the value in this. But if recent inaction continues, Senate Democrats must ask themselves what is more important – the filibuster or the constitutional voting rights of American citizens?

We believe that the choice is clear. A vibrant democracy has, at its core, a nation committed to increasing voter turnout – whether you live in a tribal community or in the inner city.

Your race, ZIP code, income or neighborhood shouldn’t be targeted to make it harder to get your ballot counted.

We call upon Arizona’s two U.S. senators to join us in this belief and pass the Freedom to Vote Act by majority vote.

For years, safeguarding the fairness of our elections was a bipartisan effort. Undermining the right to vote is not partisan, it is un-American.

If Republicans will not rise to support voting rights today, then Senate Democrats must do it with their 50 votes.

Jonathan Nez is president of the Navajo Nation. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., is chair of the subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States and a member of the House Administration Elections subcommittee.


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