Arizona;s rural Native voters are disenfranchised

Policymakers and state party officials say a fix is needed

PHOENIX - The primary season involving Legislature seats in Arizona has been especially nasty for three Navajo candidates whose filing petitions were challenged because they listed post office box addresses for some supporters.

Now, advocates and legislators say policies need to be changed to address a problem that they believe disenfranchises rural Native voters in some counties.

Election rules in the state indicate that post office box numbers are not sufficient evidence to prove that a potential voter who signs a filing petition actually lives in the district he or she will vote in during the primaries. The law instead requires a physical or direction-based address to be listed.

Voting rights advocates have said the system unfairly penalizes Native voters who live in rural areas and who primarily rely on P.O. box addresses as their primary contact information.

Mary Kim Titla, a San Carlos Apache candidate who;s running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, held a press conference in June saying that American Indians were being disenfranchised as a result of the challenges.

Arizona Democratic Party officials, who normally don't get involved with primary issues, also called challenges to P.O. box addresses discriminatory toward Native people, since many simply do not have physical addresses recognized by the U.S. Postal Service.

''We believe that Native Americans fundamentally should have a say at every level of the electoral process,'' said Maria Weeg, executive director of the state Democratic Party. She said that position includes advocating for the inclusion of P.O. boxes in election rules as a policy matter.

''It's insulting to tribal communities that they would be denied the right to vote because of a lack of infrastructure.''

The issue came to a head for state Sen. Albert Hale, D-Window Rock; state Rep. Albert Tom, D-Chambers; and 2nd Legislative District House candidate Christopher Deschene, whose opponents raised challenges to election board officials, claiming that many names on the candidates' ballot petitions were in violation of the rules.

Ultimately, Hale's case went to the state Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court's decision that said that P.O. boxes are, in effect, valid addresses on a filing petition. Hale, a former Navajo Nation president, also said that he had enough valid signatures on his petition without counting people who listed P.O. boxes.

Deschene was allowed to remain on the ballot due to similar circumstances as Hale.

It was ultimately determined that Tom, however, did not meet the threshold to run again because too many signatures on his nominating petition were discovered to be invalid for reasons other than having a post office box address.

Royce Jenkins, Hale's Republican opponent, has argued that the issue has less to do with P.O. boxes than the lack of consistency in how signatures on filing petitions are counted. The Hopi politician did not respond to requests for comment by press time to see if he would support state election rule changes that would affect Native rural voters.

Testimony presented in the court cases involving Hale indicated that county recorders, who are responsible for validating petition signatures, vary widely in how they respond to P.O. box numbers presented on candidate petitions.

In Apache County, for instance, county recorders compare P.O. box addresses listed on candidate petitions with Secretary of State records to determine whether signees actually live in the district of the candidates they supported. Meanwhile, in Navajo and Coconino counties, signatures with P.O. box addresses are set aside and disregarded altogether.

Hale said that if he is re-elected to the Senate, he will make changing the election rules a ''top priority.''

''There is a need for a legislative fix, and that is what I intend to do when I get back in January,'' he said, adding that he believes all state county recorders should perform the same kind of research as Apache County recorders when it comes to petitions listing P.O. boxes.

''It's something that needs to be done to protect the voters.''

Hale noted that this is an issue not limited to Native voters, since all rural voters who rely on P.O. box addresses are affected by the election rules. Still, he said he believes that Natives are ''disproportionately affected,'' especially in his region.

Weeg said it's important to ''prevent barriers to voting'' so that everyone has the right to vote. She said bipartisan support would be needed to make that goal happen.

Sept. 2 is primary day in the state. It's already known that Hale and Jenkins will face each other in the Nov. 4 general election, since they are unopposed in their respective primary elections.