/ Modified sep 20, 2016 10:58 a.m.

Native Americans Still Face Obstacles to Voting Access

Many don't have formal addresses, and distance to polling places may prevent some from voting.

Tohono O'odham and Gila River Indian Community seals spot The seals for the Gila River Indian Community and the Tohono O'Odham Nation. (PHOTO: AZPM)
By Carrie Jung, Fronteras Desk

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Native Americans won the right to vote in Arizona in 1948. But open access to the polls didn’t come until 1976, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision forced state officials to drop a literacy requirement. While access here has improved since then, Native voters in Arizona and around the country still face many unique barriers when trying to cast their ballots.

Laura Riddle doesn’t have a standard address, so GPS doesn’t do much to help find her. A freeway exit number and basic directions to a convenience store are more reliable.

Riddle lives on the Gila River Indian Community, which sits just south of the Phoenix metro area. Despite the community’s general proximity to the city, the reservation spans almost 600 square miles, much of it rural. And just like Riddle, many residents here don’t have an address.

"We’re used to giving directions out here by landmarks," she said. "There’s a tree. There’s two trees, there’s a big bush with purple flowers on it."

Not having an address is common for many people who live on Native American reservations in this country. And while Riddle laughs at the situation now, when it comes to voting, it has caused some serious problems.

"One of the unique challenges that tribal members face is the distance traveled to a polling place," said Jason Chavez, a former tribal liaison for the Pima County Recorder’s office. He’s from the Tohono O’odham Nation south of Tucson.

"If you live in metro Phoenix or Tucson your polling place could be at the school down the street," he said. "Well on the Tohono O’odham Nation you’re talking about 2.8 million acres, and your nearest polling place could be up to 10-15 miles from where you live."

According to census data, about one in five people on the reservation don’t have access to a car, so that distance can be a deal breaker for many on Election Day. When Chavez was at the County Recorder’s office in 2014 he spent much of his time trying to solve problems like this. His efforts included manning mobile early voting sites on the reservation in hopes that a few more voting days might improve turnout.

"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 early voting site," Chavez said.

This election cycle, leaders in the "get out the vote" movement are also concerned about how Arizona’s new “ballot harvesting” law, which makes it a felony in many cases to drop off multiple early voting ballots, will impact voter participation.

"People don’t all have access to the internet or phones or even electricity, so when we make laws we’re not thinking how does this impact rural Arizona," said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor School of Law.

She said since Native Americans were granted the right to vote in the United States in 1924 there have been many lawsuits filed across the county regarding unequal access to polls. At least six have been filed since 2013 alone.

"We are the first people of the United States, and when people face these roadblocks sometimes we’re not empowered," said Ferguson-Bohnee. "And we want to empower people. We’re a democracy."

But despite the challenges, she says projects like Pima County’s mobile early voting are encouraging.

Back at the Gila River Indian Community, Laurie Riddle said she knows where she’ll be on Nov. 8.

"We’re changing presidents now, and it’s important to say something," Riddle said.

She explained federal policy significantly impacts her community, which is why she’s making sure her voice will be heard at the polls.

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