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Push for Native American voters renewed in swing-state Arizona

Alta Edison was born on top of a hill.

It's a story she told her grandchildren. And it's an important detail as to why at first she couldn't vote.

"Since the beginning, she had challenges to vote," Ashley Edison, 23 and a member of the Navajo Nation, said about her grandmother. "She wasn't able to get an ID because she didn't have a birth certificate. ... She didn't have an address because their home was a PO Box."

In a coffee shop outside Phoenix, Edison proudly pointed to her grandmother in photographs. For more than four decades, up until her death in 2021, Alta Edison worked as an elections coordinator and was seen as a beacon for voting access, especially within the tribes in and near Coconino County.

The county has since renamed an elections office in Edison's honor, and officials credited her with helping bring out a record number of voters in 2020.

Now, ahead of 2024 elections, voting advocates in the swing state are aiming to boost voter registration strategies for Native voters, as they still face many of the same barriers that Alta Edison worked to break down.

Barriers to voting for Native Americans vary from tribe to tribe, but organizers say some tend to recur, including: address issues on rural reservation land, problems recognizing tribal identification cards, language barriers and distrust of government.

Alta Edison would help translate voting and registration forms into Navajo and be present on reservation land to help navigate ID and address issues.

In the fall of 2020, Ashley Edison spent most of her time with her grandmother. She did voter registration training to help register new Navajo voters and would wake up before dawn to table registrations and then ballot drop-off locations.

"It was worth it just because seeing elders come up to [vote] and they leave happy with the sticker," Edison said. "I don't know why the sticker is so important to them, but they put it on and they just walk away so much taller."

A pilot to offer voter registration through Indian Health Service

There are 22 federally recognized Native American tribes within Arizona's state borders, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 5% of the state's population identifies as American Indian or Alaska Native.

But voter registration challenges for tribal members in Arizona have long been documented by legal battles.

In 2022, the Biden administration released a report outlining barriers in the election process for Indigenous voters.

As a part of several recommendations, the administration made a pledge to launch five voter registration pilots through the Indian Health Service by the end of 2023. Native Health Phoenix, an urban Indian health program and community health center, was announced as the first in October 2023.

For now, it's the only site. An IHS spokesperson told NPR it's confident it will designate the remaining four sites early this year, though schedules vary due to collaborations among different state and facility officials.

Leadership of Native Health said they have promoted registration, deadlines and information in the past. But for this 2024 election cycle it now has an iPad and physical registration forms for each patient that comes through, and a set process to turn them in to the secretary of state's office.

"There's sometimes a misconception about living in an urban area," Walter Murillo, the chief executive officer of Native Health, said about access to services like voter education. "Just because we're in an urban area doesn't mean it's widely available to people."

Other organizations, Murillo said, have reached out to Native Health to learn how they could create a similar setup in their offices and do outreach, which he sees as a big impact in the push to increase registration efforts.

"It'll help the Native voice," Murillo said. "We are advocates for American Indians and Alaska Natives that live in the city that may otherwise be missed by public policy."

According to the Arizona secretary of state's office, just nine registrations have been turned in through that site since October. It's a slow start, but one that the organizers hope picks up as the 2024 election cycle rolls on.

'We were present'

Showing up in specific communities is what helped the Edisons successfully register voters.

It's the lesson other groups are trying to push. The organization Arizona Native Vote has a goal to register as many voters as possible, but it also boasts spending 30% of its time on community projects like bringing in drinking water and school supplies, and doing elder checkups.

"When people wanted to talk to who's doing the field work, who's doing the dishes, it was always back to our group because we were present," said its executive director, Jaynie Parrish.

Parrish worked on Democratic campaigns in other states and then at the Arizona county party level, until she was called back to her home by her mentor, a former Navajo Nation president, to organize voters. She then launched Arizona Native Vote to refocus local efforts on tribal outreach that she generally felt was missing from campaign outreach — even if she heard that Native voters mattered.

Others are looking to rebuild their on-the-ground efforts after the pandemic.

Although Arizona saw a record number of votes cast in 2020, groups helping to register voters faced challenges amid pandemic-era restrictions that limited face-to-face contact.

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona says it was registering up to 100 new voters a month just before the pandemic. But ahead of the 2022 election, it only registered 100 voters total.

"We were focused on online voter registration, which does present challenges, especially when it comes to those non-standard addresses or tribal IDs being recognized on the online voter registration form," said Alexander Castillo-Nuñez, the civic engagement coordinator at the Inter Tribal Council.

This is the same form that is on the iPad at Native Health. Though they are able to supplement with physical voter registration forms if needed, other organizations like the Inter Tribal Council are working to get back on the ground.

"The sky's the limit. That's my goal," said Castillo-Nuñez, who wants to get the council back to 100 registrations a month. "This is the opportunity to take ownership of your community, of the people that you love, your friends and family, and these things that you believe in and really make a difference because the Native vote does have that kind of power."

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