The History of Indian Voting Rights in Arizona: Overcoming Decades of Voter Suppression

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Patty Ferguson-Bohnee

In 2006, Navajo elder Agnes Laughter attempted to vote as she had for over thirty years. Not only was she turned away from the polls, she was berated for not having identification (“ID”) as required by Arizona’s new voter ID law. Ms. Laughter was discouraged and distraught. She did not have a photo ID nor did she have any documents to satisfy Arizona’s new voter ID law. She attempted several times to obtain a state ID from the Arizona Department of Transportation, but she was denied because she was born in a hogan and lacked an Arizona birth certificate. While Arizona law allows voters to present two forms of nonphoto ID, Ms. Laughter also lacked documents to satisfy the alternative—she did not drive, she did not own a vehicle, her home lacked electricity, and since she lives on the Navajo Reservation, she did not owe property taxes. Arizona’s new ID law did not make exceptions for voters like Ms. Laughter.

Ms. Laughter’s experience is just one example of the voter obstacles faced by Native American1 voters in Arizona. Native Americans “have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement as a matter of law and of practice.” This comes from a complicated and contradictory history of laws and policy that has recognized tribes as separate sovereigns, reduced tribal status to that of domestic dependent nations, sought to remove, relocate, or assimilate tribal citizens, terminated numerous indigenous nations, and has now moved to a policy of tribal self-government. Unfortunately, the right to vote for Arizona’s first people has only recently been achieved, and there are continuing threats to the electoral franchise. In my work as a voting rights attorney, I have viewed firsthand the threats to Native American voting rights and the need for vigilant protection of the right to vote.

Voter suppression has been used to discourage or prevent Indian people from voting in Arizona. Voter qualifications such as literacy tests were used to prevent Indians from participating in elections for approximately fifty years. Once Native Americans started voting, redistricting and vote dilution were used to reduce the effectiveness of the Native vote.

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