Navajo citizens challenge mail-in ballot ruling

This Aug. 27, 2016, photo shows the town of shows Lukachukai, Arizona, at the base of a mountain on the Navajo Nation. (Noel Lyn Smith/The Daily Times via AP, File)

Dalton Walker

‘We believe there is a legal justification for our position and are cautiously optimistic regarding the appeal’

Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

A group of Navajo Nation citizens is not giving up their fight for extra time to have mail-in ballots from residents on the vast reservation counted this November.

Attorney Chris McClure said he filed an appeal Monday after a judge ruled against the six Navajo citizens he represents in a lawsuit against Arizona.

“We believe there is a legal justification for our position and are cautiously optimistic regarding the appeal,” McClure wrote in an email to Indian Country Today.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ruled against allowing officials an extra 10 days after Election Day to count mail-in ballots from those living on the Navajo Nation in Arizona and whose ballots are postmarked by the close of voting on Nov. 3.

It’s unclear when the appeal would be heard as Election Day approaches and deadlines to register and request a mail-in ballot loom. Election Day is 35 days away, and the last day to register to vote in the general election in Arizona is Oct. 5. The deadline to request a ballot-by-mail in the state is Oct. 23.

The lawsuit argues 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.

(Related: Judge won’t extend time to count Navajo ballots)

Snow noted in his ruling 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. Snow 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.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office had argued that those who filed the legal challenge didn’t explain why they couldn’t meet the existing deadline. She said creating a rule for only Navajo Nation citizens would cause confusion among other voters.

OJ Semans, co-executive director of the Native voting rights group Four Directions, said 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.” Four Directions assisted the six Navajo Nation citizens in filing the lawsuit.

In June, the Native American Rights Fund published an extensive report on obstacles faced by Native voters. The report listed barriers in everything from voter registration to casting ballots to voting by mail.

Jacqueline De León, an attorney with the fund and co-author of the report, said limitations to rural postal services in Indian County is a real issue.

“Unfortunately, Native Americans are often mailing in their ballots from rural post offices, and we know that rural post offices take a really long time, and that’s both to receive the mail and send mail back,” she said.

The Native American Rights Fund has “quite a few lawsuits” related to issues Native voters face, De León said. One is a case against South Dakota officials, accusing them of failing to offer adequate voter registration services for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

It’s a system “that has not been designed with Native Americans in mind — and as a consequence has made it, intentionally or not, very difficult for many Native Americans to cast a ballot and have their ballot counted,” she said.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Comments (1)
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caniscandida
caniscandida

Reception by Election Day should not be the criterion for counting mail-in ballots anywhere, not just in Arizona. All ballots postmarked no later than Election Day should be valid, and they should be counted no matter how much time the postal service needs to deliver them to the poll workers.


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