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Candidates still face obstacles involving Native P.O. boxes

PHOENIX - Despite facing challenges over the validity of rural Native post office box signatures on their filing petitions, two candidates for state legislature seats were allowed to stay on their respective ballots. But issues surrounding rural Indian P.O. boxes continue.

Many in the state had thought the issue was cleared up for the time being after the Arizona Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court;s decision that said that P.O. boxes are, in effect, valid addresses on a filing petition.

However, one candidate has run into new obstacles surrounding public financing for his campaign as a result of a Secretary of State review of his filing signatures listing P.O. boxes. Plus, Indian politicians and those in the legal system continue to buzz about the issue - with some arguing that the matter boils down to Native disenfranchisement and others saying it's more about following already-established election rules.

Christopher Deschene, a candidate for a 2nd Legislative District House seat, was informed in early August by the Secretary of State that one of the names on his forms listed a P.O. box number for a Native resident that didn't seem to correlate with the resident's physical address.

The situation put Deschene, a member of the Navajo Nation, in jeopardy of not receiving thousands of dollars in ''Clean Elections'' public financing. Under that finance structure, candidates agree not to accept monies from donors, lobbyists and political action groups; in return, the state provides a grant for campaigns.

In a letter dated Aug. 4 to the Secretary of State, Deschene explained how the P.O. box issue affects voters in his region.

''As you are aware, voters living on the Navajo reservation do not receive mail at their homes, and some must travel long distances just to receive their mail,'' the candidate wrote. ''Others, such as the voter in question, live on the border of two counties - living in one county with a post office box in another county.''

Ultimately, the Secretary of State reversed course and resolved the issue to Deschene's satisfaction. Still, he faced a lag time in being able to purchase important election materials, including billboard advertising.

Deschene and other Natives in the state believe issues surrounding P.O. boxes amount to discrimination against Indian voters and candidates just because some of them happen to live in rural areas that have different mail norms.

''This problem could have easily been taken care of through better coordination between the Secretary of State and [regional] county recorders,'' he said. ''The delay in receiving funding when we didn't do anything purposely wrong really hurt.''

But not all Natives agree that P.O. box issues boil down to discrimination. Royce Jenkins, a Republican Hopi candidate running against Navajo Sen. Albert Hale, D-Window Rock, said that the situation is more about candidates having problems following the rules.

''Hale's campaign tried to say that we wanted to disenfranchise Native voters by challenging his signatures,'' Jenkins said. ''Not so. We just wanted to make sure that the people on his petitions were really [living] in the counties listed. It's about following the democratic process.

''I'm not a professional politician. I'm an honest person. If I can play by the books, so can everybody else.''

In his court case challenging Hale's petition signatures, Jenkins argued that state election law requires either an ''actual residence address'' or a ''description of [a] place of residence,'' and that a P.O. box is neither.

Despite Jenkins' arguments, Hale was allowed to stay on the ballot as a result of a Supreme Court decision in June.

The state's high court also issued a 14-page opinion clarifying the Hale decision Aug. 19.

The court did agree with Jenkins that state law intends signers to provide their residence address or a description of their residence location; however, the court also found that signatures of individuals providing P.O. boxes ''need not be'' invalidated.

''Unlike statutes governing initiative, referendum, and recall petitions, no statute directs election officials to invalidate nominating petition signatures that contain a post office box address,'' according to the court's opinion.

Judges on the case also wrote that it is ''difficult to see how a post office box address renders a signature invalid per se if an elections official can verify that the signer is a qualified elector.''

The justices concluded their opinion by saying that because Hale offered positive evidence from county recorders' indicating that his signatures were valid, Jenkins could not prevail. They noted that Jenkins presented no evidence to rebut Hale's evidence that the signers were qualified voters.