Pascua Yaqui win early voting site in settlement with Pima County Recorder's Office
The Pascua Yaqui Tribe will have an early voting site on their reservation at least until the end of 2024, the Pima County Recorder's Office and officials from the tribe announced on Monday as the two parties agreed to settle a lawsuit filed late last year.
The lawsuit came after former Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez decided in June 2-18 to discontinue the tribe’s in-person early voting site, which was located at a local radio station.
According to a court document, Rodriguez denied the tribe an early voting site out of concern for low voter turnout and insufficient IT security and on-site security, which had become relevant following concerns over foreign interference in the 2016 general elections.
The tribe, which has a population of about 6,000 living on their reservation between the borders of the Tohono O’odham Nation and Tucson's South Side, discussed options for a more suitable location with Rodriguez but was informed again in December 2019 that they would not have an early voting site for the 2020 general elections.
The tribe sued Rodriguez in October 2020, just weeks before the election, claiming they had been denied their constitutional voting rights and equal voting access, but a U.S. district judge blocked their suit on the grounds that the Pascua Yaqui never proved their ability to vote had been completely obstructed and that the Recorder’s Office would be overburdened by having to administer another site on short notice.
Rodriguez retired after 2020, and her successor elected that November was Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, the first Native American elected to a Pima County office. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe still had the ability to file an amended lawsuit until the end of August 2021, but Cázares-Kelly said on Monday that getting the site restored had been a priority since she came into office.
The Recorder’s Office and tribe agreed to a settlement, which will see in-person early voting site on the reservation for every statewide primary and general election until Dec. 31, 2024.
The agreement also stipulates that the recorder and the tribe will cooperate to find a “suitable and mutually acceptable” in-person early voting site by February 2022. The county recorder will also staff an early ballot drop box location during the early voting period.
The recorder’s outreach staff will also meet with the tribe on a quarterly basis in the 12-month period leading up to an election to encourage voter engagement on the reservation, according to the settlement.
Cázares-Kelly said she had prioritized getting the Pascua Yaqui their early voting site because the incident showed how Native American voters are treated unequally.
“The closure of the Pascua Yaqui early voting site was another injury unfairly inflicted unto Native American voters,” she said on Monday at a press conference at the Casino of the Sun. “It sends a misleading statement to the Native American community that their votes are not valued.”
The first-year county recorder said that “Pascua Yaqui children will be talking about how their tribe had to sue our county” before getting a needed early voting site and that this is “a stark reminder that we do not all start from the same starting line.”
She said reaching this settlement will have a larger effect by changing the tone of discussion around early voting sites for Native American communities.
“We publicize and advertise that early voting sites are meant to be convenient, and then we talk about Native communities and we ask ourselves not whether or not it’s convenient but whether or not it’s necessary,” she said.
Members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council joined Cázares-Kelly to talk about the settlement, and Chairman of the Tribal Council Peter Yucupicio emphasized the importance of no longer being denied.
“Here in Southern Arizona, I don’t know of too many communities like that who were denied and have 6,000 strong,” the chairman said. The Pascua Yaqui didn’t expect any “special treatment,” he said. What they expected was “just simply to vote.”
He also said the only way to build trust in a voting system is to “offer the same thing you do down the street but not deny this community.”
Cázares-Kelly had also visited Washington, D.C., earlier in the month to lobby for the passage of the For The People Act, a voting and election reform bill blocked by a Senate filibuster over the summer.
She said the legislation would create a “baseline protection” against denying underserved communities access to voting and prevent the kind of conflicts that led to the Pascua Yaqui v. Rodriguez lawsuit.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.