Changes to election laws and polling place closures since 2013 have had a disproportionately negative impact on members of federally recognized tribes in Arizona, tribal leaders and voting rights advocates told a Congressional subcommittee Tuesday morning.

Until 2013, Arizona, Alaska and seven former Confederate states that historically imposed laws limiting voting by racial minorities needed federal approval to pass any changes to voting laws. But since the Supreme Court threw out that provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Arizona Legislature and local election officials have had carte blanche to pass new laws and close polling locations.

The end result, tribal leaders and civil rights groups said during a Congressional hearing at Phoenix College, was a series of changes to state laws targeting different aspects of voting that make it more difficult for tribal members and other people of color to participate in Arizona elections.

“It’s no secret that elections in Arizona historically and still today are a mess,” Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said.

Stanton and fellow Arizona Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego, Ann Kirkpatrick, Raúl Grijalva and Tom O’Halleran are among the 91 House co-sponsors of the Native American Voting Rights Act, which would restore a mandate that states seek federal approval before passing some laws, including photo ID requirements, and analyze the effects state laws have on indigenous people voting.

The Navajo Nation wants Congress to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act, President Jonathan Nez said. In the meantime, he said, the Arizona Legislature would benefit from traveling to Indian Country and listening to tribal members.

“A lot of the laws that are being changed for the state of Arizona go through the Legislature and they don’t know that it hurts the nation,” Nez said.

Even seemingly small changes, like a law this year that moved state primaries to the first week in August, can have a deleterious effect on Navajo voter turnout, Nez said. The Navajo Nation has long scheduled its own elections to coincide with local, state and county elections to boost turnout, but now they’re a few weeks apart.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said members of federally recognized tribes are also negatively impacted by a new law, 2019’s SB 1072, that requires voters to show a photo ID if they vote early in person. People who vote early by mail can use their signature as proof of identification.

State voter ID laws allow tribal identification cards, but only if they contain a valid address. Not all tribal ID cards include addresses, and many tribal members who live in rural areas don’t have standard U.S. Postal Service addresses.

Mail service can be difficult on reservation lands, Roe Lewis said, making voting by mail difficult. Arizona officials who closed more than 300 polling places across the state in the past few years cited an increase in mailed ballots as a reason for shrinking the number of polling places, but Roe Lewis said members of his community would prefer to vote in person.

“It’s a tradition,” he said. “It’s an engrained tradition among our community, especially with our elders.”

Both Roe Lewis and Nez said language barriers and different cultural definitions of “family” also contribute to obstacles native people face when it comes to navigating some laws. Tribal members who aren’t natively fluent in English might miss instructions to sign the outside of their ballot envelopes, leaving them open to having their ballots tossed out.

And a 2016 law that made it a felony for anyone but immediate family, caregivers and household members from collecting and turning in ballots for anyone else can be difficult to understand because indigenous groups, including the Navajo and Gila River tribes, have looser definitions of “family” than the “Anglo-centric” one used to define family in the state’s law, the two tribal leaders said.

That ban, coupled with unreliable mail service, leaves some elderly people facing long drives to turn in their own ballots, Nez said. Committee Chairwoman Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said the difficulties native people face trying to vote are “un-American.”

“It is unconscionable to me that someone would have to drive an hour or two or three to cast their ballot,” she said. “It is un-American.”

Committee members also heard from Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Scottsdale Republican who championed many recent changes to voting law, including photo ID requirements and the ban on ballot collection. Ugenti-Rita said Arizona has been on the forefront of expanding voting opportunities while ensuring the state is safe from election fraud. 

Ugenti-Rita said she has yet to hear from actual voters harmed by Arizona’s voting laws, and said opposition to those laws has come only from special interest groups.

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