Voters have a right to access voting information in a traditional language, but only seven Arizona counties are required to offer materials in an Indigenous language.
In December 2021, the Census Bureau’s Department of Commerce announced which states and counties are subject to the minority language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Six languages were included for Arizona, and five are Indigenous languages.
The seven counties with one or more Indigenous languages covered for voting information are Apache, Coconino, Gila, Graham, Mohave, Navajo and Pinal.
For April Ignacio, founder of Indivisible Tohono, knowing that only five Indigenous languages are covered when there are 22 tribal nations in Arizona is not surprising.
“We’re used to the lack of accessibility,” Ignacio said of the voting environment for Indigenous peoples. “We’re used to being an afterthought.”
Indivisible Tohono is a grassroots group that focuses on federal and Arizona legislation that impacts the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Ignacio said that Indigenous communities have dealt with various tactics of voter suppression for years, from closing rural polling locations to the arbitrary laws passed by the Arizona legislature.
“Despite these challenges, Natives are still voting and they’re gonna continue to vote,” Ignacio said. “We’re just going to have to figure out how to ensure that the people who are voting have the correct information.”
Which languages get covered in a given election can change. To qualify, the area has to have either more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens who are limited English proficiency, or more than 10,000 voting-age citizens are limited English proficiency and then the rate of total voting-age citizens that are limited English proficiency and have less than a 5th-grade education is higher than the national rate.
After these criteria are met, the state, county, or county subdivision is covered for that specific minority group and is required by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act to provide voting resources in that language.
The languages covered are American Indian, Alaska Native, and Spanish languages.
Ignacio said because most counties are not required to have voting information readily available in an Indigenous language, it is often left up to tribes and local election officials.
Ignacio is a citizen of the Tohono O’Odham Nation, a mother of six, and the Native American Caucus Chair for the Arizona Democratic Party. She’s been working as a voting advocate within her community for over four years.
She said that tribes often have to get creative to ensure that voters who speak the language or are more comfortable speaking the language have resources at their fingertips when they vote.
Ignacio said in her own voting district of Pima County, they do provide voting information in the Tohono O’Odham language — even though they are not legally required to — because of the relationship the Tohono O’Odham Nation has built with the Pima County Elections Department.
“That’s a common practice not to have those languages a part of the voting process, and, in turn, seeing how the counties respond to that. A lot of them do it anyway,” Ignacio said.
Providing voting information in Native languages, Ignacio said, is more welcoming because voters will see their own languages.
In Coconino County, elections officials are required to offer voter information in Navajo, Hopi, and, for the first time, Paiute. In other years, Yuma and Pueblo have been included.
Coconino County Recorder Patty Hansen said her office has had a Native American outreach program in place for more than 20 years, and they’ve worked with both the Navajo and Hopi tribes to develop voting material in their languages to help their voters.
As a way to reach voters, Hansen said they often run radio ads in Navajo and Hopi languages because it has proven to be the most effective. They provide information on voter registration, polling locations, early voting, and other basic election information.
On Election Day, she said her office has interpreters at every one of the polling places so that voters can get the ballot translated.
Often, Native language speakers don’t read the language, Hansen said, which is why it’s important to have a Native speaker available to translate the ballot.
She said her office has even reached out to the Havasupai tribe, even though they were not required to. The Havasupai did tell her office that they didn’t need language assistance, but Hansen said they always make sure they hire people from Supai Village to be poll workers on Election Day.
Hansen said that it’s good for county election offices to build a relationship with the Indigenous Communities in their area because it’s important to get them the proper voting information.
“That relationship is important,” she said. “It’s not that much work. It’s communication and outreach.”
This article was first published in the Arizona Mirror.