FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The largest Native American reservation in the U.S. includes parts of three Arizona counties, all of which had different approaches to precinct voting in the 2020 general election.
Voters in Apache County had to cast ballots at the polling location they were assigned. People registered in Navajo County could vote anywhere in the county. Coconino County used a hybrid model.
The Navajo Nation has long argued the approach is inconsistent and confusing, leading to ballots being rejected and tribal members being denied the same opportunity to vote as others in Arizona.
The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed on Thursday in a broader case over Arizona voting regulations, upholding a prohibition on counting ballots cast in the wrong precinct and returning early ballots for another person.
The ruling will reach broadly into tribal communities, particularly those where Indigenous people don't have residential mail service or must drive long distances to polling sites and the post office.
Native American voting rights advocates viewed it as another notch in a long history of voting discrimination but say they'll continue pushing for access and changes in laws.
"I feel like it's in our blood to be ready to counter and fight and stand strong," said Jaynie Parrish, who is Navajo and executive director of the Navajo County Democrats. "Our organizers say all the time, 'If your vote didn't matter, why are they trying so hard to take it away.'"
The high court's conservative majority wrote that Arizona's interest in the integrity of elections justified the measures and said voters faced "modest burdens" at most. A lower court had found them discriminatory under the federal Voting Rights Act.
"The court seemed to note the number of ways that people can vote without recognizing how those ways are limited in Indian Country," said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University's law school and a citizen of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe in Louisiana. "They are not a reality for reservation voters."
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Thursday's decision does nothing to protect voting access for minorities, including Navajos.
The decision ignores the number of voters who didn't cast a ballot because they were told they weren't in the right precinct, as well as socioeconomic barriers such as poverty and the reservation's remoteness, said Ferguson-Bohnee.
Hardly anyone has a street address on the vast Navajo Nation. Tribal members are among rural residents who must draw a map in a small space on voter registration cards showing where they live, and it's up to county officials to place them in the right precinct.
In the 2020 election, more than 2,000 voters in Apache County were placed on a list because of questions surrounding their residency, the Navajo Nation noted in court documents. Neither the state nor the county had online options for voters to determine their polling location without a street address, tribal attorneys wrote.
There's no public transportation on the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation that's bigger than 10 U.S. states. It stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many people rely on friends, family or strangers for rides.
Poor roads increase the difficulties of voting, the tribe said. More than four-fifths of the reservation's roads are unpaved. During elections, many Navajos tell politicians they want better roads.
"Even just gravel, we'd be very grateful," said Tovina Yazzie, manager of the Sweetwater Chapter on the Navajo Nation.
Yazzie tries to impress upon tribal members that voting could result in more funding to the small community near the Arizona-Utah border. She also recognizes the obstacles.
"We run into some people or community members who don't have vehicles, so it is a hindrance for our community to come in and vote," she said. "And also, the weather has a role in it, if it's snowing or rainy or muddy."
Jennifer Begay, who works at the Red Mesa Chapter nearby, spent three hours in the 2016 election driving family and friends to polling locations, mindful of the toll the dirt roads would take on her car that doesn't have much ground clearance.
"I was just really wanting people to vote," she said. "They didn't have transportation."
Native Americans weren't granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, and even then some states prohibited them from voting for decades if they lived on reservations or couldn't pass an English literacy test.
Native Americans and advocacy groups have won or settled much of the election-related lawsuits they've filed over the years, according to a report by the Native American Rights Fund.
Montana's legislature passed a bill earlier this year to prohibit the paid collection of absentee ballots and another to end Election Day voter registration. Tribes have brought state constitutional challenges to both laws, arguing they prevent Native Americans living on reservations from fully and equally participating in elections.
In Nevada, state lawmakers last year lifted limits on who could collect and return mail ballots on behalf of others. Teresa Melendez of the Nevada Native Vote Project said it's been incredibly helpful, especially for tribal members who must drive three hours roundtrip to the nearest polling place.
Arizona passed laws this year that Native Americans said will make voting more complicated but that Republicans defended in the name of election integrity. One bill codifies a practice of giving voters who didn't sign ballots until polls close on Election Day. Another could result in a purge of voters from the rolls who automatically get ballots by mail.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, said the state's ballot collection law ensures fairness in elections. The challenge that ended up before the Supreme Court was a desperate tactic by Democrats, he said.
"This decision is a clear repudiation of those tactics," he said in a statement.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled the law was most likely to affect Native Americans who travel long distances to mail ballots.
"However you can get your ballot to the ballot box, that should be primary," said Steve Begay, the vice chairman of the Apache County Democrats. "If there are laws restricting that, that's probably not democratic."
President Joe Biden's administration favored a narrower ruling of the Supreme Court's decision that overturned the 9th Circuit. The decision came while the administration is seeking input from tribes across the country on barriers to voting.
A surge in voter turnout among tribal members helped lead Biden to victory in Arizona, a state that hadn't supported a Democrat in a White House contest since 1996.
Jacqueline De Leon, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund and a citizen of Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, said tribes have pushed for more voter registration opportunities with federal agencies and for a liaison in the U.S. Postal Service to increase residential mail delivery on tribal land, among other things.
Despite the obstacles for tribal members, she urged Native Americans and other minority communities to vote so their choices can help shape new laws.
"There wouldn't be so much effort to disenfranchise voters if there wasn't power at stake," she said.