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This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

Jen Fifield
and Carrie Levine

Votebeat

On the day of the August primary election, Kee Allen Begay Jr. was at a polling place on the Navajo Nation when he overheard voters talking about how they had gone to the wrong polling place.

Begay said the voters were told that they had to vote at a different location 20 or so miles away, a trip they weren’t willing to make. Begay, an elected official for the tribe who lives in Apache County, has heard similar stories before.

Navajo Nation officials have been lobbying Apache County for a solution already adopted by many other Arizona counties — opening at least one vote center on the reservation where registered voters from anywhere in the county would be allowed to cast ballots. But they say they haven’t been able to persuade local election officials, despite offering resources to support the vote center. When other Arizona counties have switched to using vote centers, it has reduced the number of rejected ballots.

The complexity of mapping out reservation addresses; the crisscrossing county, precinct, and tribal community lines; and the lack of voter education on reservations, among other issues, create confusion for Navajo Nation voters in Arizona over where their assigned polling place is. It’s not always the closest or most intuitive location. Some who are told they are in the wrong place cast what’s called a provisional ballot, which is reviewed by officials before being counted to see whether the voter was in the right place after all. If the voter was wrong, their ballot is rejected.

The pattern of those ballot rejections — a denial of the chance to participate in the election — is discouraging for a community that has long struggled to make its voice heard.

In 2020, voters in Apache County, which includes much of the Navajo Nation, saw a higher percentage of provisional ballots rejected than any other county in the state. The main reason registered voters’ provisional ballots were rejected in Apache was because they voted in the wrong precinct, according to a Votebeat review of federal government data from the 2020 presidential election.

Besides opening a vote center, Navajo leaders have urged the county to add more options for how to vote, such as expanding the number of drop boxes, early voting, and Election Day sites, some of which they’ve done in recent years. While most Arizonans vote by mail, Navajo Nation voters do not have street addresses, instead receiving mail at post office boxes — and U.S. Postal Service locations are few and far between.

With early voting underway in the midterm election and Election Day rapidly approaching, Navajo leaders say the conversation between the tribe and Apache County to reach solutions is at a standstill. Apache County Elections Director Angela Romero did not respond to Votebeat’s request for an interview, after confirming she received it, nor to a subsequent email with specific questions for this article.

Begay says the lack of progress on solutions is just another example of the long history of voting rights issues for Native Americans in Arizona.

“Arizona continues to compound problems for Native Americans,” Begay said. “We are a part of the state. We are citizens. We just need to be heard.”

High ballot rejection rate unresolved

In Apache County in 2020, more than 900 provisional ballots were rejected, or about 1 percent of ballots cast, and of those, 35 percent were rejected for being cast in the wrong precinct. Apache, by far, rejected the highest percentage for being cast out of precinct except for Graham County, which rejected only a tiny number of provisional ballots — a total of 46, according to data tracked by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Pima County, which rejected the next largest percentage for that reason in 2020, is using vote centers this year, and in a report after the primary, Pima County election officials said the switch eliminated provisional ballots for voting in the wrong precinct.

Katherine Belzowski, the acting assistant attorney general in the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, which handles voting issues, also says Apache County voters go to the wrong precinct location, especially newly registered voters. And, also like Begay, she’s convinced the data on provisional ballot rejections doesn’t capture the extent of the problem because many voters then just give up and don’t cast a ballot at all.

“We’ve had voters get sent to two different precincts on Election Day and by the second precinct, they’re like, ‘Never mind. I’m just not going to bother,’” she said.

Native Americans make up an estimated 72 percent of Apache County’s eligible voters, according to the U.S. Census, more than in any other county in the state.

In 2020, Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul said in congressional testimony that during the 2014 and 2016 general elections, Native American voters were vastly overrepresented when it came to casting provisional ballots. Since those elections, many more Arizona counties have started using vote centers.

In Arizona, under state law, it’s up to counties to offer vote centers or stick to a precinct-based voting model. Navajo Nation officials are asking for at least one vote center in Apache County in a high-traffic part of the reservation in hopes of cutting down on the number of ballots tossed for being in the wrong precinct.

Belzowski said new voters are most likely to be confused about their polling site. Voters who aren’t signed up to receive a ballot in the mail receive an informational packet before the election telling them their correct precinct and polling place. But mail isn’t the best way to communicate with reservation voters because it can take a long time to reach them, and many do not check their mail often because it’s a long way to the post office box where they receive it.

After seeing the 2020 data on provisional ballot rejections, Belzowski said the Navajo DOJ began asking Apache County leaders to consider offering at least one vote center on the reservation, even on a trial basis. Apache County officials initially seemed open to the idea, Belzowski said, but cited concerns about internet access. Because voters can go to any vote center location, vote centers need internet access to make sure voters checking in have not already voted elsewhere.

In July, Belzowski sent Romero the results of an assessment by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority which said it could provide the necessary internet access for free at potential vote center sites around the county, and also provide a staff member to troubleshoot. She said she hasn’t heard back from Romero, though Navajo County is working with the tribal utility to use the service as a backup for this election.

Belzowski said that around that time, Romero stopped attending the monthly meetings hosted by the Arizona secretary of state’s office that bring together the state, counties, and tribe, with the exception of one meeting after the August primary when Belzowski said Romero declined to discuss the vote center proposal. Apache County does send a representative from the county recorder’s office to the meetings.

The Navajo Nation and Apache County have butted heads before. In 2018, the Navajo Nation sued, saying, among other things, that Navajo voters had inadequate access to early voting compared to off-reservation voters. The lawsuit ended in a settlement, with the county agreeing to provide additional early voting sites on the reservation at specified locations and open for agreed-upon hours.

Begay said the tribe has been requesting a sit-down meeting with officials to discuss whether vote centers could work. He is hopeful that there may be a solution for future elections.

Coconino and Navajo counties now both offer at least one vote center on the reservation on Election Day. Coconino County election officials said its vote center location, in Tuba City, is always busy. In addition, the county has accessible voting equipment at all polling places in order to provide language access in Navajo, Hopi, Spanish, and English. If voters choose to use the accessible equipment, they can vote out of their precinct at the other locations, Coconino election officials said.

“I think that’s a real problem with Apache County,” said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, the director of the Indian Law Clinic at Arizona State University and an experienced voting rights lawyer.

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In 2020, Coconino County rejected just one provisional ballot for being cast in the wrong precinct, compared to 154 in 2016. Navajo County didn’t reject any in 2020 for that reason.

Distance, language, and low voter engagement

Native voters in Arizona have historically faced many barriers to casting ballots. Indigenous communities “have lower voter engagement, they face additional barriers beyond what some other communities face” and gained the right to vote more recently than others, said Donovan Carr, the tribal liaison and community outreach coordinator for the secretary of state’s office.

The geography of the Navajo Nation itself makes it hard to vote. On the wide open reservation, communities are separated by miles of open space. Not everyone has a car. Internet and mail service is spotty.

Begay said some Navajo Nation communities don’t have a post office at all. If someone lives in the southeast part of the expansive area known as Low Mountain and the post office is in the northeast part, “you are talking about almost a 20-mile drive for a person to check their mail.”

The lack of street addresses on reservations complicates the issue further. Sometimes, Begay said, the post office the voter’s mail goes to is in a different precinct than the voters’ house, which leads to the voter being assigned to the precinct where they get mail rather than the precinct where they live.

Some Navajo voters without street addresses tell the state where they live by drawing a map to describe it. This can also lead to problems. In 2012, McPaul noted in her congressional testimony, Apache County deemed the addresses used by around 500 Navajo voters to be “too obscure.” Those voters were placed on what is called a “suspense list,” which required them to clarify their addresses so they could be assigned to a precinct, according to a report in The Nation magazine. Apache County officials told the magazine they sent correspondence to those voters to attempt to clarify their addresses, but at least some voters said they never received the letters notifying them there was a problem with their registration.

And voters’ descriptions of their location often require interpretation. If, for example, a voter says they live five miles south of the chapter house, is that five miles as the crow flies, or five miles on the road? Sometimes, the descriptions result in voters being assigned to an incorrect precinct, which can contribute to voter confusion.

When it comes to Election Day voting, Begay and Belzowski said the Navajo Nation holds the election for their tribal leaders on the same day as general elections but often at a different location. That means voters are already being told to go two places. If they are turned away when they try to vote in the state election, Begay said, that would mean going to three different places. He said past attempts to combine the voting sites for the tribal and state elections have failed.

That gets even more complicated when a tribal community spans two counties. Begay said the area he represents is split between Apache and Navajo counties, so some voters will have to vote at their chapter house in one county for the tribal election but then cross the county line to vote in the state and federal election. Out of Arizona’s 15 counties, Coconino, Navajo, and Apache Counties rejected the largest numbers of provisional ballots in 2020 from registered voters who cast them in the wrong jurisdiction.

Communicating with reservation voters also isn’t easy. Cell phone service and internet access are limited and spotty. Residents get their mail via post office boxes but often have to drive long distances to access them, which means their mail gets checked less regularly and they may be delayed in receiving mail from election officials, or harder for election officials to reach, making it more difficult for election officials to reach out to voters and resolve questions. Belzowski said Apache County election officials have also been hard to reach on Election Day, to resolve problems and questions as they come up.

Mail sent to and mailed from the reservation takes an indirect path to its destination, making some voters reluctant to vote by mail. For example, in Apache County, a ballot mailed from Window Rock “is routed to Gallup, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Show Low, then to the county recorder in St. Johns,” according to a Supreme Court brief the Navajo Nation filed in 2021 as part of a voting rights case, a route that includes crossing the state border to New Mexico.

Belzowski said mail takes 10 days to reach its destination, raising the risk of a ballot arriving too late to be counted and leaving reservation voters more reluctant to use mail voting. In 2020, a group of Navajo voters citing the slow mail service sued the state in an unsuccessful attempt to force election officials to count ballots from Navajo voters received after 7 p.m. on Election Day as long as they were postmarked by the deadline.

There are long distances between the five ballot drop boxes on the Apache County section of the reservation, too, especially in less populated areas. The distance between the drop box in Teec Nos Pos, in the far northern end of the county near the border with New Mexico, and one in Chinle, the next-closest location, is about 95 miles. And the Teec Nos Pos voting location was only established in the wake of a legal settlement signed in 2019, Belzowski said.

Begay said many Native American voters are discouraged by all of these barriers. Combine those voting challenges with a language barrier, and many decide it’s not worth their time.

Barriers to offering vote centers

Other counties that have considered using vote centers on reservation land say there are challenges, such as the long distances and difficulty recruiting enough staff. For example, Graham County, citing distance and limited staff, offers vote centers in parts of the county, but not on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.

Vote centers use ballot-on-demand printers, which sometimes require assistance from information technology staff, Wendy John, the Graham County recorder, and Hannah Duderstadt, the election director, said in an emailed response to questions. “We simply do not have enough staff to cover more vote centers than we currently have,” they wrote.

When vote centers are in place, though, it significantly reduces — even eliminates — the number of provisional ballots being cast and rejected for being cast in the wrong location. In 2016, Maricopa County rejected 2,197 provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct, according to federal data tracked by the U.S. EAC. In 2020, that number dropped to zero, something the county attributed to vote centers.

Asked about the status of communications on the issue between Apache County and the Navajo Nation, Carr, of the secretary of state’s office, said he wanted to be “circumspect” but noted that rural counties don’t always have the resources of larger, more urban counties. The office hosts the monthly meetings that bring the tribes and county and state officials together to find solutions.

For example, Carr, who himself is Navajo, said his office was able to help the counties and the Navajo Nation coordinate with nonprofits and others to ensure there were enough poll workers to staff polling sites before the 2020 election. They also worked with the Apache County recorder to translate ballot propositions into Navajo, he said.

Carr’s team also goes to in-person events to help reach Native voters and educate them about voting in their county, he said, and works with others to spread the word.

He acknowledged that voters going to the wrong precinct on Election Day “is a problem. It is something that we would like to address. But we work within the confines of state law and what we can do, we do.”

“Certainly historical problems like the digital divide, the lack of rural addressing — there are issues we won’t resolve in a day,” he said.

Belzowski said the Navajo Nation would like to see Apache County do more voter outreach, offering potential solutions such as advertising to voters in the local paper about how to find their precincts or setting up a hotline for voters who need help. She also still wants vote centers, and would like county officials to talk to the Navajo Nation about offering them before the presidential election in 2024.

“There’s just so much distrust already with Navajo voters and state and federal elections,” she said. “For people that have faced so many hurdles for so long to try and vote, it’s just one more barrier. Just one more hurdle. Just one more, you know, incidence of the state making it harder for them.”

Carrie Levine is Votebeat’s story editor. Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Carrie at clevine@votebeat.org and Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

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