HOLBROOK — The national controversy over voting rights shadowed the Navajo County Board of Supervisors meeting this week.
Supervisor Fern Benally took a moment after a presentation by the county recorder’s office to underscore the challenges many Navajo face when it comes to voting.
Bernally also recognized the death of Agnes Laughter, a Navajo weaver who challenged the state’s voter identification requirements in 2006.
The moment came in the midst of a debate about voter fraud and the restrictions imposed by Arizona and upheld by the US Supreme Court likely to reduce the already low turnout on Indian reservations, where many voters don’t have formal addresses, don’t speak English, don’t get mail delivered at home and must drive up to 150 miles to reach a polling station. On the other hand, the proposed 2021 Native American Voting Rights Act if it passes would reduce barriers to voting on the reservations and elsewhere.
Bernally mourned the death of Agnes Laughter this week. “A woman who really tried to vote passed away yesterday,” said Benally, whose district includes a large swath of the Navajo Reservation, with a population of nearly 200,000. “She really had a hand in getting Navajos to vote. She fought hard for that and that’s admirable for a Navajo woman who grew up in a Hogan to do this for people.”
Laughter was born in 1932 near Canyon DeChelly National Monument — the ancient homeland of the Navajo. In 1970, the Chilchinbeto sheep herder she cast her first vote after the US Supreme Court finally banned literacy tests.
She took up the struggle to expand voting rights for the Navajo after that.
And she went to court after Arizona added a requirement that voters bring things like birth certificates to the polls in order to vote. The law was intended to prevent undocumented, non-citizens from voting — but it had a big impact on the Navajo Reservation, where many people did not have any of those required documents — despite clan memberships and family lines that stretched back hundreds of years before the first Europeans arrived on the scene.
Laughter had been using her thumbprint as her form of identification for much of her adult life. When she showed up to vote in 2006, she turned away for lack of the required identification.
“I felt humiliated, worthless and as if I did not exist,” said Laughter, according to Navajo Council press release. The state and the county elections department repeatedly rejected her attempt to establish her identity. “When I was told it was not valid, I went through much sorrow, much heartbreak. Many times I was not able to sleep because I was so concerned about people discrediting who I am.”
She eventually filed a lawsuit in federal court that prompted the US Justice Department to expand the types of documents required for identification at the polls. Her struggle won her the Frank Harrison and Harry Austin Citizenship Award.
She also was one of 12 weavers who created an internationally renowned weaving style and in 1984 finished the second largest Navajo multi-design rug in the world — measuring 28 by 26 feet, according to a 1997 Arizona Republic article.
She died in the midst of a new struggle to protect the voting rights of Native Americans. Studies show that Blacks and Hispanics in the US generally vote at rates that are 6 to 15% lower than whites. Native voters generally vote at rates that are between 1 and 15% below other minority groups.
The gap narrowed in the last election, in part due to the adoption of mail-in voting in many states that had previously not allowed the practice. Navajo, Apache and Hopi voters generally vote more heavily Democratic, which made the relatively high turnout in the last election critical in President Joe Biden’s wafer thin margin over then-President Donald Trump.
Legislatures throughout the country have enacted a variety of new restrictions on voting in the wake of that election, including Arizona.
The Arizona legislature imposed new restrictions, including a much more frequent purge of people on the early voting rolls, tighter restrictions on ballot signatures and materials, a restriction on how long county recorders have to verify signatures on mail-in ballots and other changes.
Some of those changes have been cast into doubt by a Maricopa Superior Court judge’s ruling that four laws added to a budget bill without hearings were unconstitutional because they violated the requirement that a bill must deal with a single subject. One of those laws included a ban on school mask mandates. Another involved voting restrictions.
However, a recent US Supreme Court decision has also undercut the ability of voting rights groups to challenge voting restrictions. The case of Brnovich v. DNC revolved around two voting restrictions. One disqualified any vote cast in the wrong precinct. The second barred anyone besides a family member or household member or caregiver from turning in anyone else’s signed, sealed mail-in ballot at a polling place.
The US Supreme Court ruled that the legislature had a legitimate interest in imposing restrictions intended to reduce the possibility of voter fraud, even in the absence of the actual proof of voter fraud. Moreover, the court ruled that it wasn’t enough to show that such laws had the effect of discriminating against minority groups like Native Americans. Critics had to prove that the legislature actually intended to discriminate in adopting the restrictions.
The decision could have a direct impact on voting on the reservation, where it’s often hard to determine which precinct people live in — given the lack of formal addresses. Moreover, efforts to collect mail-in ballots and deliver them to distant polling stations have proven especially effective on the reservations — which is why the Navajo Nation argued the losing side of the case before the Supreme court.
The ruling could also affect a recent settlement between the state, the county and the Navajo Nation stemming from a 2018 lawsuit. The lawsuit asserted that a lack of polling stations, drop boxes for mail-in ballots and translators to help voters amounted to unconstitutional discrimination against Navajo voters. The state and the county settled the suit by providing additional translators and increasing the number of places people could drop off their ballots.
However, the proposed 2021 Native American Voting Rights Act could address some of those problems. The bipartisan legislation was drafted in response to the Supreme Court ruling. It would require more drop boxes, voter registration locations and polling places on reservations, require states to accept federally issued IDs, permit tribes to designate building addresses people could use to register, establish a task force to examine barriers to voting on reservations and require review by the US Justice Department or federal courts of state changes in election procedures and require “culturally appropriate” language assistance for voters.
Supervisor Bernally noted that she’d only made it to the board of supervisors meeting because she had a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a low gear to get through the washouts and muddy puddles in the road following the most recent rains.
“I didn’t realize it had rained more on the Black Mesa side,” she said. Those same kinds of transportation difficulties often face Navajo voters trying to reach distant polling stations.
“Navajo families like to go to the polls to vote as opposed to early voting,” she said. “We do encourage them to do their early vote or mail in their vote, but it’s hard for them. It is also hard to even know the right precinct. If you don’t get the mileage just right, they put you in the wrong precinct for voting. That’s why they changed it so you can vote anywhere in Navajo County.”
So she honored Laughter for her long struggle — and thanked Navajo County Recorder Michael Sample for his presentation.
“I thank you for going out and doing whatever you do — I’m sure it’s a lot of paperwork trying to figure things out.”
Supervisor Jason Whiting agreed. “I admire that you’re coming before the board. Certainly, it’s not unnoticed by our citizens. Large groups of people are crying ‘unfair, unfair,’ but it’s easy to work with your department so everyone has a chance to vote.”