HOLBROOK & ST. JOHNS — The Navajo Nation and some individual Navajo voters have sued, among others, Apache County, Navajo County and the Arizona Secretary of State alleging that certain policies have denied some Navajo Nation voters their right to participate in the early voting process.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Prescott on November 19, 2018, alleges that state and county policies nullified ballots of early voters because either the early Navajo ballots were not signed, or the signatures on the ballots did not match the voters’ signatures in the voter registration database. About 100 Navajo Nation ballots were discarded during the last general election in November 2018, the suit says.
Early voting in Arizona has been hugely popular since it began 25 years ago. In the 2016 election, around 80 per cent of ballots were cast that way, say the plaintiffs. Voters have 27 days before an election to either mail in a ballot or visit an in-person early voting place.
The plaintiffs allege that there are too few in-person early voting stations on the Navajo Reservation and not enough interpreters around to help voters understand the ballot and critically — the directions for submitting an early ballot.
The Secretary of State’s voting regulations require ballots to be in English and Spanish, but not in Native languages.
One plaintiff, Irene Roy, claims that she is 198 miles from St. Johns and 100 miles from Fort Defiance, where she could vote, and receives her mail at a location 35 miles away.
The plaintiffs want the court to do something about it; specifically, they seek to enjoin the defendants from continuing certain policies. And although they do not seek money damages, they have asked for their attorneys fees and costs.
The policies they complain about is the disparity in which various counties handle early ballot problems. In Navajo and Apache counties, the voter is given five days after an election to remedy a situation where the signature on the ballot doesn’t match the signature on file on the voter rolls. State law required this as of April, 2019. But the counties don’t specify a remedy for ballots with no signature at all — only Maricopa County does that, say the plaintiffs.
The Navajo Reservation was established by treaty with the U.S. Government in 1868. It is the largest in the country. It spans 27,000 square miles and according to a 2010 census, contains 173,667 persons, 101,838 of whom live in Arizona counties. Around 70 percent of the tribal members speak a language other than English, says the complaint, and according to testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 2006, over 25 percent are illiterate.
That’s understandable considering that the Navajo language is “a historically unwritten language,” say the plaintiffs. In fact, according to filmmaker Billy Luther, in his PBS production of “Miss Navajo,” missionaries in the early 1900s published religious texts using their own made-up Navajo alphabet and it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioned the first standardized alphabet of the language.
This Athabaskan language confounded Japanese code breakers during WWII when Navajo Code Talkers used it for secret wartime communications, but it also creates challenges for officials in charge of voting who are required by law to print written instructions on how to vote.
The plaintiffs start out the suit with a lengthy recitation of very troubling racial and economic discrimination foisted upon American Indians in the past and suggest that the present difficulties are more of the same. They have asked the defendant counties to add more voting stations, but that’s where bureaucracy gets stymied by, well, other bureaucracy.
For example, Arizona signed an agreement with the federal government to have all polling places conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act, accommodating persons with disabilities. The feds say it’s OK to use old polling places that don’t comply but all new ones must comply, and that makes a polling station expensive to build. In 2002 Congress passed the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) and matching grant money has funded Arizona’s part of that program.
Arizona used the money to develop a new, statewide voter registration database and on cyber security measures to ensure against hackers, said then-Secretary of State Michele Reagan —most likely a federal mandate.
But it looks like a settlement is in the works, with the plaintiffs telling the court last week that a joint settlement agreement has been signed by them, and the counties will now ask their respective boards of supervisors to approve it, too. Apache County was set to vote on it September 10.
In the settlement, the secretary of state will include in the next Draft Elections Procedures Manual provisions to give voters the same opportunity to cure missing signature ballots that other mismatched signature voters have now.The Arizona attorney general and governor must sign off on that. Additionally, the secretary will use certified Navajo language interpreters to publish the voters publicity pamphlet in the Navajo language. Each side in the dispute will bear their own attorneys fees and costs.
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