Outreach Group Tries To Bring Out Navajo Voters
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Native Americans in a number of states face obstacles to vote. One outreach group on the Navajo Nation is trying to get voters out for the midterms. The Mountain West News Bureau's Erik Neumann brings us the story.
ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: At the southern border of Utah in Monument Valley, huge, red rock walls and pillars punctuate the horizon.
TARA BENALLY: Yep. Four-three-three, county road.
NEUMANN: That's Tara Benally. She works with a nonpartisan voter registration group called the Rural Utah Project. The roads are pretty rough around here, and she's been driving along at just 15 miles per hour. She pulls over to a mobile home seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
BENALLY: And I'm sure these people will be pretty surprised to see us out here (laughter).
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BENALLY: Hello. Tara Benally (speaking Navajo).
NEUMANN: In 2016, a federal judge ordered the voting district boundaries in San Juan County to be redrawn after ruling that they gave too much control to white, typically Republican voters. Based on the new maps, two Democratic Navajos could be elected to the three-member county commission. It would be a first.
BENALLY: (Speaking Navajo).
ROGER HOSTEENEZ: (Speaking Navajo).
NEUMANN: Benally says with the new boundaries some Navajo voters have been listed in the wrong precincts. That means they would get the wrong ballot on Election Day, which could skew the election results. So she's out trying to make sure residents are registered in the right place.
BENALLY: Do you need a ride to the polling place? (Speaking Navajo).
HOSTEENEZ: (Speaking Navajo).
NEUMANN: Inside, she speaks with Roger Hosteneez (ph), alternating between Navajo and English. Hosteneez says the cost of gas and driving bad roads has made it difficult to get to his PO box to vote by mail.
HOSTEENEZ: Last time I tried. You know, and I guess they didn't count my vote. Remember, it was some years back, when Trump was running?
BENALLY: Yeah. And some people will just pick up their mail and not realize that their ballot's in the mail until they get home. And then, hey my ballot's here.
NEUMANN: Indian Country largely feels left out of the voting process. James Tucker is an attorney who works with the Native American Rights Fund.
JAMES TUCKER: In some places, it's just because of neglect. In other places, it's by design.
NEUMANN: He says there are voting barriers throughout Indian Country.
TUCKER: Lack of registration opportunities, distance issues to get to their polling place, lack of early voting opportunities, overt discrimination at the polls.
NEUMANN: Like voter ID laws that target Natives or polling locations that he says discourage voters by placing them in a local sheriff's office. Jesse Trentadue is an attorney representing San Juan County. He argues it's not just Navajos who have issues with the new precincts, since just a quarter of all residents here have street addresses. So he says there are bound to be some issues with the new district map.
JESSE TRENTADUE: Because of the Rural Utah Project's efforts to register Navajo voters, they're finding more of them there. But would the same problem exist elsewhere in the county with respect to non-Navajo? Yes.
NEUMANN: Meanwhile, the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office did receive complaints from both Navajo and non-Navajo residents after the 2018 primary saying that polling locations were overcrowded, mismanaged and that some voters were asked who they were voting for. This year for the first time, a poll watcher will be in place on Election Day to make sure things go smoothly. Tara Benally with the Rural Utah Project hopes the redistricting and voting outreach will give Navajos a better seat at the table.
BENALLY: It's progress for our people. It's just a better outlook for the people in southern San Juan County, Utah.
NEUMANN: Benally leaves the house and gets back in her car. She drives on to her next stop, slowly creeping along at 15 miles per hour. For NPR News, I'm Erik Neumann in Monument Valley, Utah.
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