Obstacles to voting in Indian Country were the dominant point of discussion Tuesday at a subcommittee hearing, which ended with a heated exchange between a Republican state lawmaker and several Democratic members of Congress. 

The House Administration Subcommittee on Elections heard testimony from tribal leaders, researchers, activists and a state representative about the obstacles to voting faced by American Indians, rural voters, nonwhite voters and felons. The hearing was held at Phoenix College. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis explained the unique challenges their rural constituents face in accessing their right to vote. One issue that is common between both communities, Lewis and Nez said, is poor mailing infrastructure.

“There may be as many as five families sharing a P.O. box,” Nez said of the Navajo reservation. “There’s not enough boxes to accommodate everyone.”

Because many Indian voters have P.O. boxes in different counties or even in New Mexico, ballots cast by tribal members are often invalidated due to address discrepancies. The two tribal leaders put it to the federal government to move forward with comprehensive American Indian voter rights reform. They pointed to the Native American Voting Rights Act introduced earlier this year by U.S. House Democrats.

“Election Day is important to us. It is about family. It is about connecting,” Lewis said.

The second half of the hearing featured input from researchers, voting rights organizers and Republican state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita. There was broad agreement on the six-person panel by all but Ugenti-Rita that voter suppression is a major issue in the state and that it manifests along racial lines. 

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, said, “This is not a political maneuver. This is a Congressional hearing. We are collecting evidence to take back to Washington,” regarding the subcommittee’s purpose.

But the atmosphere turned bitterly political toward the end of the hearing as Democratic legislators grilled Ugenti-Rita on her history of voter rights legislation. She has sponsored legislation to end door-to-door early ballot collection and remove voters from the permanent early voting registration rolls.

Ugenti-Rita countered that such legislation has done nothing to keep Arizonans from voting. 

“It is easy and convenient to vote in the state of Arizona. If you are not voting, it’s because you chose not to,” she said.

That made her the only dissenting voice at Tuesday’s hearing.

Ugenti-Rita was met with a scathing line of questioning from Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a former state legislative colleague of Ugenti-Rita, who criticized her history with tribal organizations, and in particular her failure to consult tribes about the potential negative effects of banning ballot collection.

“You understand why some of us our concerned that there wasn’t tribal consultation,” he said. “Will you have tribal consultation in the future? Will you actively work with tribal organizations before you craft legislation like this?”

But Ugenti-Rita dismissed Gallego’s entire premise that consultation was important.

“I did (consult them) by introducing the law and having it go through the appropriate process,” she responded. “I had it in committee.”

Several other Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, followed Gallego’s lead and questioned Ugenti-Rita’s perspective on voting access in Arizona. She said accusations of racial discrimination and voter suppresion were “unsubstantiated and, frankly, offensive.”

U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who chaired the subcommittee, criticized the motivation behind Ugenti-Rita’s ballot harvesting bill. 

“As the Constitution says, every citizen of this country has the unabridged, unfettered right to vote,” Fudge said. “I just hope that we stop being so high and mighty that we realize (that) not everyone is like we are. Not everyone has had the benefits we’ve had.”