Counties navigate restrictions on tribal land for primary

August 3, 2020 GMT

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Tents are going up on the Navajo Nation with hand-washing stations. One tribe has shortened the hours for voting. A ticketing system will let voters in eastern Arizona cast a ballot curbside or inside.

The coronavirus has forced changes to the way people will vote in Tuesday’s primary election. On tribal land, election officials are navigating the closure of businesses and government buildings, curfews and other restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Coconino County, the largest by size in the state, will have tents set up in four Navajo communities to ensure social distancing that wasn’t possible at the previous polling sites. The secretary of state’s office has sent portable hand-washing stations to the reservation and other rural areas.


Some county election workers in Tuba City are shifting their hours because they didn’t have the option of staying at hotels on the Navajo Nation that were closed because of the pandemic, said county recorder Patty Hansen.

The Navajo Nation canceled its own primary for local officials but tribal members still can vote in person for the statewide primary. President Jonathan Nez had pushed back against the decision by tribal lawmakers, but they overturned his veto of a bill that sends all candidates to the general election ballot to be decided by plurality vote.

Hansen said Coconino County has been running radio advertisements in Navajo and English to let voters know about the election. An executive order Nez signed earlier this year deems voting an essential activity and not subject to the tribe’s daily curfews or stay-at-home order.

Voters on the Havasupai reservation deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon will have less time to vote in person than others around the state, at the tribe’s request. The tribe has no cases of the coronavirus and has kept its reservation closed to visitors.

It is allowing a Coconino County worker to fly into the reservation on Tuesday to conduct the primary election from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and out the same day, Hansen said.

Before the pandemic hit, county officials were considering using a drone to carry vote tallies from Supai village to the rim. The reservation is accessible only by foot, mule or helicopter. The testing was scrapped because there was no way for the pilot of the drone to maintain line of sight through the canyon or comply with other federal regulations, Hansen said.

“It has been a challenge for us to determine what will be the safest locations and procedures for our Navajo Nation, Havasupai and Hopi voters, but I’m very pleased that we’ve had such good collaboration with the tribal governments,” Hansen said.


On the eastern side of the state in Navajo County, voters who show up at polling sites on the Navajo and Fort Apache reservations will let poll workers know if they want to vote inside or curbside, said elections director Rayleen Richards. They’ll get a number and either a pink or green ticket while they wait their turn to cast a ballot, she said.

“I do think there will be less people, but that’s just me anticipating less people because of COVID,” she said.

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, who leads Arizona’s Native Vote Election Protection Project, credited the state for maintaining in-person polling sites on all tribal land for Tuesday’s primary.

The polling sites in tribal communities within Maricopa County, including Gila River, Salt River-Pima Maricopa and Fort McDowell, have been designated voting centers.

“We’re definitely going to be monitoring to make sure the polling sites are open and people show up, just to get a feel for what might happen with the general,” said Ferguson-Bohnee.

For New Mexico’s primary election in June, there were concerns about potential voter suppression as some of the usual polling locations in pueblo and rural communities were not opened due to challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Not all Arizona tribes have had access to early voting on their reservations. On the Navajo Nation, voters could cast ballots under a carport that Coconino County installed because its office in a library basement didn’t allow for social distancing.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona hasn’t had an early voting site since 2016, forcing tribal members to travel up to two hours round-trip off the reservation, said Herminia Frias, who sits on the Tribal Council.

States have been relying more heavily on a mail-in ballot system for this year’s elections amid the coronavirus pandemic and with social distancing guidelines in mind. Native Americans have been reluctant to embrace the system because of cultural, historical, socioeconomic and language barriers, and past experiences, the Native American Rights Fund said in a wide-ranging report released earlier this year.

“This is the trend and, for us, it’s like we don’t want that trend because we’re still at the voter education phase,” Frias said.