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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

A representative democracy means the people choose their elected officials, not the other way around.

Concerns about voter suppression efforts are mounting in Arizona. Many say the redistricting process is being targeted to diminish Native voting power.

“I’m very concerned. I'm very angry. I'm disgusted by what's happening,” Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly said. She is the first Indigenous person to hold an elective office in southern Arizona’s Pima County and previously volunteered with a grassroots organization to increase Native voter participation.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is tasked with drawing fair and competitive congressional and state legislative district maps and it is deep into the process right now.

The commission wrapped up draft map hearings and the public comment period on Dec. 4.

Now it's focused on redrawing the final maps and is supposed to adjust boundaries based on the public testimony heard over the past month.

Arizona is one of many states accused of drawing non-competitive maps and experts say the partisan gerrymandering gives Republicans an unconstitutional advantage.

“Arizona is a place where there's consistent discrimination,” said Jacqueline De Leon, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

Coconino County Democrats Chair Ann Heitland said, in an op-ed, the draft maps crack and pack Democrats and Native American voters, meaning proposed boundaries divide those voters into many districts (cracking) or they’re pushed into a few districts (packing) to dilute voting power.

Experts say Arizona redistricting aims to diminish Native vote

District maps are supposed to respect community interests, comply with the Voting Rights Act and strive for competitiveness.

The Arizona constitution requires the commission to honor the criteria but only six of the 30 legislative districts qualify as competitive under the commission’s metrics.

New maps must be drawn and enacted by Jan. 1. Tribal leaders and Native voting rights advocates have proposed district boundaries, submitted comments and are continuing to monitor the process closely.

Proposed Congressional Districts
Proposed State Legislative Districts

Redistricting shaped by census

Every 10 years the U.S. Census data is used for the redistricting process. States are allotted seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on the population count.

Cázares-Kelly says there are challenges with using census data to inform the redistricting process because the federal government has earned mistrust from Indigenous communities.

“It is difficult because when you're dealing with communities that have been burned by government and government outreach before and we're now asking for input, we're now asking for information, there's a lot of fear and confusion and the relationship building and the repair that needs to be done isn't there,” Cázares-Kelly said.

Despite communities of color being undercounted, Arizona still experienced dramatic growth.

Many hoped the population increase would warrant one new congressional seat to bring the total to 10 but that never happened.

Political experts were shocked, the state had received an additional seat for the last 70 years.

When the state went from eight to nine congressional seats, after redistricting in 2011, each district had a population of roughly 710,000.

Based on the 2020 Census data, the nine districts will now have roughly 795,000 people in each, standing in contrast to states like Oregon which gained a seat (707,000) and New York which lost a seat (777,000) based on the 2020 census data, according to the Arizona Mirror.

The 2020 Census data showed a significant increase in American Indians and Alaska Natives across the nation.

And it wasn’t just Indigenous people who experienced population growth, the Latino population increased in the last decade as well.

The Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting advocated for the commission to create a legislative district that is predominantly Latino. Tribes voiced similar desires.

Areas of concern under proposed district maps

Formerly competitive districts are being dismantled and replaced with non-competitive “safe” districts, which discourages voter participation if one party is sure to win.

“We have carefully reviewed the proposed maps put forth by the commission, and we are very concerned that the new maps will dilute the voices of the first people of this country and this state,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission proposed keeping urban Natives communities in Legislative District 6 and strongly opposed incorporating Flagstaff into the district. The San Carlos Apache tribe agreed.

Steve Titla, San Carlos Apache, read a letter Chairman Terry Rambler penned to the state commission.

“It is absolutely imperative that the commission maintains a robust Native American majority-minority legislative district capable of electing its preferred candidate into office,” Titla read.

Twenty-four of the 30 state legislative districts are considered “safe” and would hand 13 districts to Republicans and 11 to Democrats.

If approved the maps could make Republican control of the legislature highly likely for the next decade.

The proposed congressional district 2, in the northeast corner of the state, is a major concern for tribal leaders.

Currently the area is congressional district 1 and includes the Navajo Nation, stretching across most of northern and eastern Arizona and reaching down into Pima County.

Right now congressional district 1 is held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran but the proposed reshaping into congressional district 2 would include Yavapai County, a district Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar holds.

“I know that CD1, there likely will be some changes to that. And I think that's what we're looking at now,” said Matt Campbell, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

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The Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe want to keep the current congressional district 1 boundaries intact.

Democratic commissioner Derrick Watchman, Navajo Nation, is the only Indigenous person on the state’s redistricting commission and is against the proposed 2nd congressional district.

Congressional district 2 was a topic of discussion at Monday’s mapping meeting, which focused on crafting the final congressional and legislative districts.

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Democratic commissioners were vocal about cutting out conservative Yavapai County from the proposed congressional district 2. Republican commissioners threatened doing so would force them to revive their initial proposal to include conservative Mohave County into the district.

Mapping consultants were directed to draft four new maps ahead of Thursday’s meeting that incorporate both parties' proposals for congressional district 2.

Heitland said under the proposed draft maps Native Americans “lose” because it would dilute the vote for 13 tribal nations.

The Voting Rights Act requires districts be drawn to allow minority voters to elect candidates that represent them.

States with histories of discrimination were subject to federal oversight, however, Arizona no longer needs federal pre-approval for district maps, also known as preclearance.

Campbell, Native Village of Gambell, says preclearance was an important and necessary tool.

"And that's why part of what we've been advocating for is the restoration of the Voting Rights Act. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would reintroduce and bring back that preclearance requirement,” Campbell said.

Public feedback

Public meetings were hosted to gather feedback from the community on the proposed districts.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission hosted public hearings on the draft maps for the past month and the last one was described as hostile.

Many Republicans showed up to the Tucson meeting in red shirts, standing in unison, being vocal and even cutting speakers off.

“We have been here for thousands of years, since time immemorial, and we deserve a say and we have people who have lived here for three years, five years, a year, coming to these redistricting meetings and talking about why we should be separated from our communities,” Cázares-Kelly said.

Many of the hearings were held on the weekdays, during regular business hours and some were virtual - making meetings inaccessible to much of the public.

Members of the public who did have the opportunity to attend pointed out the differences between the communities that are grouped together in the proposed district lines.

They noted differences in lifestyles and politics between rural and urban communities, with one person even describing differences in water management.

A Flagstaff resident urged the commission to adopt the Navajo Congressional Plan CDF010 and said Natives deserve to have a voice.

“If a party is sure to win, why would we vote? Everyone should be engaged and if one party is sure to win they can ignore constituents outside of their party. Please consider CDF010,” Dawn from Flagstaff said.

Cora Maxx-Phillips, from the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said the community deserves to elect congressional representation in a competitive district.

“Competition means candidates must pay attention to all their constituents. When one party is sure they’ll win, they’ll ignore constituents outside of their party. The draft map has taken a competitive district and made it Republican with the addition of Yavapai county. This rigorously dilutes the Native vote. Please redraw district lines for congressional district 2,” Maxx-Phillips pleaded.

Then there was a short and to the point comment from Kristie Blackman, wife of Republican Walt Blackman, who praised the massive losses to the Navajo Nation.

“I’m a proponent of keeping Flagstaff with legislative district 6 and I love congressional district 2,” Blackman quickly said.

Republican Rep. Gosar would be poised to take over the proposed congressional district 2.

However, Gosar was recently stripped of his duties after he released a video portraying himself killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and going after President Joe Biden.

The House of Representatives voted to censure Gosar and remove him from his House Committee assignments. It was the fourth censure doled out in the last 40 years.

The new district maps must be in place by Jan. 1, the day candidates can start filing for congressional runs.

Other attacks on voting rights

There’s been no shortage of attacks on voting rights.

“In the 2020 election, we saw massive amounts of voter turnout. We had one of the highest rates of returns for ballots that Arizona has ever seen. We've had the highest rate of turnout for Native Americans, Latinos, any people of color, college students, young people,” Cázares-Kelly said.

Historic voter turnout in 2020 resulted in an assault on voting rights, she said. The Arizona legislature pushed through more than 125 voter bills.

“Previous to that, it was pretty common to have around 50 per cycle,” Cázares-Kelly said “There was around 80 and this last cycle that we just finished up was 125, the majority of which were anti-voter bills that were specifically intended to criminalize voters, election staff or even myself as a recorder.”

Earlier this year, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Republican, announced S.B. 1485 which targets the eligibility of early voters. The bill eliminates the permanent early voting list and replaces it with an active early voting list. Under the new law a voter will be removed from the early voting list if they do not return a ballot in four years.

“Native Americans continue to face overt discrimination,” De Leon, Isleta Pueblo, said.

Arizona tried outlawing ballot collection before preclearance was removed but withdrew the request when the Department of Justice asked about the impact on minority voters.

As soon as preclearance was gone the law was enacted.

“Voting is the pressing and foremost civil rights issue of our time. And we all have to rise up and fight against this discrimination,” De Leon said.

She listed the structural problems that exist that impede access to voting like distance, time and money to travel to polling locations. Access to vehicles and road conditions are problems. Many tribal members don’t have mailing addresses and some even share P.O. boxes.

“You have discrimination that takes advantage of the structural problems and makes it more difficult to vote,” De Leon said.

She says exploitation is rampant and noted the financial extent it has gone. De Leon pointed to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe’s early voting site that was shut down.

“What stands out to me about that case is that the county spent $180,000 defending the choice not to open up the polling place. Which is to say that they were so dedicated to keeping access away from Native Americans that they were willing to spend a lot of money, much more than it would have taken just to open the polling place,” De Leon said.

“That kind of entrenched discrimination is really problematic and plays out all across the state,” she said.

It’s a critical moment. The Native American Rights Fund has focused on coalition building to analyze redistricting across states and is weighing the different options, including potential legal action.

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