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Jacques Billeaud
Associated Press

A judge has refused to give officials an extra 10 days after Election Day to count mail-in ballots from Navajo Nation citizens who live on the tribe’s reservation in Arizona and whose ballots are postmarked by the close of voting on Nov. 3.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow said in a ruling Friday that most Navajo Nation residents don’t have access to home delivery of mail and must travel long distances to get their mail. But he concluded those pushing for the change compared mail delivery times on the reservation only to cities, not other rural areas in the state.

The judge also said Navajo voters have other options for delivering completed ballots, such as dropping them off at county recorder’s offices, in drop boxes, at early voting locations or at polling places on Election Day. “As Navajo voters have access to several voting options that allow them to turn their ballots in later than the return posting of their ballot allows, plaintiffs have not shown a disparate burden,” Snow wrote.

It's unknown whether the challengers intend to appeal. Chris McClure, one of the attorneys representing those who filed the lawsuit, didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.

Four Directions, a Native voting rights advocacy organization, assisted six Navajo Nation citizens in filing the lawsuit, which asked for more time for election workers to count ballots from the reservation because mail service there is much slower and less accessible than other parts of the state. OJ Semans, co-executive director, said he was “disheartened” over Snow’s decision and noted his organization is “strongly urging” an appeal.

“Unfortunately, Judge Snow made his ruling based upon the White citizen having the same problems as the Navajo Nation members when it comes to vote by mail, which is not a fair comparison in that for one, the White rural population are not considered a protected class of voters whereas the members of the Navajo Nation are,” Semans said in an email statement. “While he based his opinion looking through the eyes of the White rural population, we are looking at it through Native eyes and disagree with his findings.”

The lawsuit said people who aren’t Native American and live in affluent communities such as Scottsdale would have 25 days to cast and return their mail-in ballots, while Navajo Nation members would have only 15 days, given the slower speed of mail delivery on the reservation.

They argued Arizona’s requirement that ballots be turned in to authorities by 7 p.m. on election night would disenfranchise tribal members. Arizona doesn’t allow mail-in ballots to be counted if they’re not received on Election Day. Some states like Nevada, Ohio and Virginia accept postmarked ballots that arrive after the election.

The last day to register to vote in Arizona in November’s general election is Oct. 5.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office urged the judge to reject the request, saying those who filed the legal challenge hadn’t explained why they can’t meet the existing deadline and adding that creating a rule for only Navajo Nation members would cause confusion among other voters.

In September, the secretary of state’s office published a guide for Native American voters and said it has received $1.5 million in funding to increase access to early voting and ballot drop-off options in tribal and rural communities.

“Native American communities have historically participated in voting in-person on Election Day as a civic and community event,” Hobbs said in a statement about the Native voter guide. “Due to current public health concerns, it’s now more important than ever to plan ahead and have back-up options for voting.”

The lawsuit came amid concerns that the U.S. Postal Service will not be able to properly handle a crush of Americans voting by mail. It sought a Nov. 13 deadline for counting votes cast by Navajo Nation members who live on the reservation in Arizona.

Other legal action has taken place across Indian Country related to voting rights.

In South Dakota, Four Directions, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit earlier this month against state officials, accusing them of failing to offer adequate voter registration services.

In Montana, a judge on Friday struck down a voter-enacted law that restricted third-party collection of absentee ballots after several Native American groups argued they rely on ballot collection efforts to vote. The Ballot Interference Prevention Act exacerbated the barriers many rural Native Americans face in voting, which include difficulties in traveling to post offices and polling places, and is unconstitutional, District Judge Jessica Fehr ruled.

A new Nevada law allows residents to fill out their ballots and let someone else return them on their behalf, an act that could assist Native voters wishing to vote in rural areas of the state. Tribes see ballot collection as a critical way to boost historically low turnout in Native communities.

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Indian Country Today contributed to this report.