Native Americans won the right to vote in Arizona in 1948. But open access to the polls didn’t come until 1976, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision forced state officials to drop a literacy requirement. While access here has improved since then, Native voters in Arizona and around the country still face many unique barriers when trying to cast their ballots. Laura Riddle doesn’t have a standard address, so GPS doesn’t do much to help find her. A freeway exit number and basic directions to a convenience store are more reliable. Riddle lives on the Gila River Indian Community, which sits just south of the Phoenix metro area. Despite the community’s general proximity to the city, the reservation spans almost 600 square miles, much of it rural. And just like Riddle, many residents here don’t have an address. “We’re used to giving directions out here by landmarks,” she said. “There’s a tree. There’s two trees, there’s a big bush with purple flowers on it.”
Not having an address is common for many people who live on Native American reservations in this country. And while Riddle laughs at the situation now, when it comes to voting, it has caused some serious problems.
“One of the unique challenges that tribal members face is the distance traveled to a polling place,” said Jason Chavez, a former tribal liaison for the Pima County Recorder’s office. He’s from the Tohono O’odham Nation south of Tucson.
“If you live in metro Phoenix or Tucson your polling place could be at the school down the street,” he said. “Well on the Tohono O’odham Nation you’re talking about 2.8 million acres, and your nearest polling place could be up to 10-15 miles from where you live.”