Ariz. Tribe Sues County To Reopen Early Voting Location

Law360 (October 14, 2020, 5:37 PM EDT) -- The Pascua Yaqui tribe of southern Arizona has filed an emergency motion asking a federal judge to compel Pima County to reopen an early voting site on the reservation that has been closed since 2018.

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez is denying the reservation's more than 3,600 residents equal access to vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the tribe said Tuesday. She should be enjoined to operate a site on the Pascua Yaqui Pueblo Reservation from Oct. 26-30, according to the motion, as well as an emergency voting site until Nov. 2.

The tribe also seeks a ballot drop box and says members will otherwise have to travel at least two hours by public transit to vote early.

"Defendant Rodriguez's decision not to reinstate an in-person early voting site on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation deprives a historically disenfranchised Native American community of equal voting access during a pandemic that disproportionately kills Native Americans," the tribe wrote Tuesday.

The Arizona reservation had an early voting site on its northeastern edge starting in 2010, court records show. Only 44 people voted there in the 2016 general election, prompting a public education campaign the tribe says was foiled when the site was shuttered ahead of the 2018 primary.

The closest early voting site is now 8.5 miles away, according to the tribe, a "severe impediment" as nearly a third of tribe members on the reservation don't have a car and must rely on the bus.

The tribe is pursuing litigation after fruitless back and forth this month with Rodriguez's office over a potential early voting site at the reservation's wellness center, according to the motion.

A Monday complaint accuses Rodriguez of violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting qualifications that result in the "denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

Removing the reservation's early voting location has created the requisite "disparate impact" on Native American voters, according to Tuesday's motion, leaving them "about three to four times more distant from early voting sites than whiter areas of the Tucson region."

Early voting is also particularly important for the Pascua Yaqui, the tribe said, because Election Day crowds pose a COVID-19 risk. Vote-by-mail rates are historically low.

"Even before the pandemic, Native Americans had the highest rate of infectious disease severity and death of any racial or ethnic group," the motion said.

Rodriguez's written refusals to open an early voting site on the Pascua Yaqui reservation have cited factors such as low turnout and a lack of funding from the state, according to Tuesday's motion.

A spokesperson for Rodriguez's office declined to comment on pending litigation.

But in a Sept. 1 news release, Rodriguez listed 13 recommendations and limitations the tribe's leaders "have not considered," including a tribe-funded ride-share service to the closest early voting site.

"It is too late in the election year to make changes and be able to provide a secure voting site," the release said.

Jonathan Diaz of the Campaign Legal Center, counsel for the tribe, criticized Rodriguez's "disappointingly dismissive attitude" in a statement. 

Meanwhile, the Pascua Yaqui tribe urged the court to act quickly Tuesday, citing a potential for irreparable harm.

"Those who manage to cast their ballots will only be able to do so after enduring hours of travel and risking their lives … by unnecessarily exposing themselves to COVID-19," the motion said. 

Tribal Councilwoman Herminia Frias added that the stakes are high.

"In an election where Native American votes could swing the results in Arizona, it's important that every Yaqui that wants to vote is given an equal opportunity to do so," Frias said. 

The tribe is represented by Danielle Lang, Jonathan Diaz and Aseem Mulji of the Campaign Legal Center, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University and Mary R. O'Grady and Joshua D. Bendor of Osborn Maledon PA.

Counsel information for the Pima County Recorder was not immediately available.

The case is Pascua Yaqui Tribe v. Rodriguez, case number 4:20-cv-00432, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, Tucson Division.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Pascua Yaqui Tribe v. Rodriguez


Case Number

4:20-cv-00432

Court

Arizona

Nature of Suit

Civil Rights: Voting

Judge

James A Soto

Date Filed

October 12, 2020

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