The Navajo Nation reservation, the largest concentrated population of American Indians in the United States, is tucked into Arizona’s northwest corner. Stretching across 27,000 square miles of mesas, shrubs and sand, the reservation is largely rural, often without internet access, paved roads or street signs. Employment and education rates are far below the national average, and very few people own vehicles. If residents on the reservation ever need to drive to their county seat — say, to register to vote or to cast an early-voting ballot — the journey could easily take them four hours. Ahead of Arizona’s primary on Tuesday, Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have sought to reach out to Native communities and mention Native issues on the campaign trail. This year marks the first presidential election since the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of voting discrimination to get pre-approval for new voting laws. While much of the national conversation has been focused on Southern states and laws affecting African-American and Hispanic voters, Native Americans in places like Arizona also are affected by policies that discourage them from voting, which have resulted in some of the lowest voter participation rates of any demographic group in the country.
“Arizona was one of the states covered under the Voting Rights Act, and when it got gutted, that hurt people here a lot,” said Katherine Yell, director of operations for the Democratic Party in Coconino County, Arizona, which is about 27 percent American Indian. “Arizona has what I like to call draconian voter ID laws. You have to register in advance at least a month before the election, you have to have a photo voter ID with your permanent address on it, which makes it tough for people who travel for work because there’s not a lot of work on the reservations.”
Since the 2013 Supreme Court decision, states around the country that used to be covered by the Voting Rights Act have enacted new laws they say aim to prevent voter fraud but minority voters contend suppress their voting rights. Regulations such as Arizona’s voter ID law can be tough on Native Americans because tribes don’t require official identification and only recently started providing ID cards at all.