To warm up for whatever voter suppression efforts part flunktionary Steve Barnett has in mind to mark his time in the Secretary of State’s office, South Dakota-based Native voting rights group Four Directions is helping the Navajo Nation sue three Arizona counties and Arizona Secretary of State Michelle Reagan for discriminating against tribal members and providing unequal ballot access.
The 155-page complaint (including exhibits) alleges multiple violations of Navajo voting rights:
- The counties did not give 100-plus Navajo early voters a chance add missing signatures to their ballot envelopes after the election. Other counties around Arizona do give voters five business days after Election Day to “cure” such errors.
- The counties capriciously refused to establish additional voter registration and early voting sites on the sprawling Navajo reservation, and the lack of such sites denied Navajo voters the assistance that would have helped them avoid ballot errors like the above-mentioned omitted signatures.
- Arizona only provides oral translations for Navajo speakers; the state thus denies a vital service to tribal members voting by mail.
The Navajo Nation wants those 100-some tribal ballots cured and counted, but it also asks the court for future reforms:
- certified Navajo translators for all future early voting and election-day polling sites;
- radio broadcasts of early voting instructions in Navajo for 30 days before each election;
- additional in-person voter registration sites; and
- additional early voting sites on the Navajo reservation open for consistent hours for 30 days before each election.
Early voting was not easily accessible for Navajo voters. One of the complainants in the suit lives in Kayneta, a town of over 5,000, where Navajo County offered early voting for ten hours before the general election. The drive to vote in the county seat of Holbrook is 350 miles round trip—imagine driving from Flandreau to Aberdeen to vote.
The complaint recites a long and grim history of these three counties’ efforts to discriminate against American Indians—literacy tests, lawsuits, gerrymandering, even resistance to integrating the public schools.
The complaint also includes the August 8 letters that Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Attorney General Ethel Branch sent to each of the counties requesting that each county use federal funds made available under the Help American Vote Act to establish early voting centers and offering to help staff each facility for the 30 days preceding the election. Coconino County rejected that request, claiming that an agreement with the Department of Justice forbade them from opening any new early voting centers that did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Coconino County also claimed that the Secretary of State had told the counties that HAVA funds were all spent and that “The only new HAVA funds… are for cybersecurity….” Secretary Reagan said that claim was incorrect: after spending approved for election security, “there remains approximately $5 million in the HAVA account. I expect,” wrote Secretary Reagan, “and I have told Arizona’s counties, that most of this balance can and should be sent to counties to enhance their own election security needs.”
Navajo County waited over a month, until September 10, to respond to the Navajo Nation, and then responded with a disrespectful indirectness, not saying a clear “Yes” or “No” but suggesting that they couldn’t open any new early voting sites without vaults and enclosing a list of existing early voting sites and schedules.
Judge Dominic Lanza has set a hearing in the case but seems a little bothered by the fact that the Navajo Nation waited until after the election to sue:
In an order Wednesday setting a hearing in the case, Judge Dominic Lanza wrote that the Navajo Nation provided no explanation for “why they waited until two weeks after the election” to file the lawsuit.
“It is notable that many of Plaintiffs’ criticisms are directed toward actions by county election officials that occurred weeks or months before the November 2018 election,” Lanza wrote [Dustin Gardiner, “Navajo Nation Alleges Elections Officials Discriminated Against Tribe’s Voters,” Arizona Republic, 2018.11.21].
Sure, the suit comes after the harm has been done, but it seems reasonable to bring the suit and ask a judge to ensure such harm does not happen again. Rather than waiting until the rush of the last month of the 2020 election, the plaintiffs and the defendants have a chance to lay out their cases in detail give the judge time to consider a reasonable plan the protects everyone’s equal voting access.