At 8 a.m., Council Delegate Kee Allen Begay Jr. planned to drop his ballot off at the Many Farms Senior Center polling place in Apache County before he began to campaign across the Navajo Nation for the rest of the day.
When Kee arrived to vote, however, the polling site was closed.
All polling locations in Arizona are legally required to be open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.
Kee was told that the polling site was “not open and set up yet,” according to his declaration in the legal complaint filed by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona representing the Navajo Nation.
“There were many voters in line waiting to vote,” he said.
Many Farms Senior Center was Kee’s only option to cast a ballot in person and have his voice heard in the 2022 election. It was the only option for the many voters who traveled to the polling site to vote on Election Day. That’s because unlike Maricopa and Pima counties, which use poll centers open to any registered voter of that respective region, Apache County voting is based on assigned precincts, meaning people have to vote at a specified polling location.
No one knows how many people had to leave without exercising their constitutional right to vote in the midterm election.
“I have no alternative location where I can vote in person,” Kee said.
He traveled to the post office to mail his ballot since the Many Farms polling site was closed.
“I now realize that my ballot may not be received by the county in time for it to be counted,” he said.
Kee’s plan to spend the day campaigning for reelection to the Navajo Nation Council — working to continue the progress in developing Indigenous communities with respect for culture and traditions — now included fighting for voting rights for his people. He currently represents the communities of Many Farms, Low Mountain, Tachee, Blue Gap, Tselani, Cottonwood and Nazlini.
Not long after 8 a.m., the ACLU of Arizona received information about Kee being unable to vote because the polling location was closed. ACLU’s mission throughout every state includes defending individuals’ civil rights to vote in the U.S. through legislation, litigation and public education.
Apache County contains part of the Navajo Nation. Concerned about tribal citizens being disenfranchised, the Navajo Nation joined as plaintiffs in a lawsuit to ensure people who may have had to leave the Many Farms polling place without casting a ballot had more time to return to vote.
They filed the lawsuit against the Arizona Secretary of State and the Apache County Recorder, Elections Director and Board of Supervisors. They asked the court for a temporary restraining order to mandate that the Many Farms polling site stay open an additional two hours to help voters who were disenfranchised due to the late opening.
Native Americans have a long history of fighting voter discrimination and disenfranchisement in Arizona. Indigenous people became U.S. citizens in 1924. However, it took another 23 years and a lawsuit for Native Americans to actually secure the right to vote in Arizona.
In 1947, two Yavapai men from the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation — one a World War II veteran, the other a tribal chairman — tried to register to vote through the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in Phoenix.
They were refused. They filed a lawsuit to protect their rights.
One year later, the Arizona Supreme Court overruled a lower court’s opinion, citing Indian law scholar Felix Cohen: “To deny the right to vote where one is legally entitled to do so, is to do violence to the principles of freedom and equality.”
Since then, the Navajo Nation has filed several lawsuits to protect Navajo citizens’ voting rights.
There are 1,974 Navajo Nation members registered to vote who live in the Many Farms community, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit outlined what was at stake for Navajo voters and democracy:
“At least some of these members are unlawfully having their right to vote severely burdened as the result of the failure of this polling location to open on time, and would have standing to sue in their own right. The interests at stake in this action are germane to the purpose of the Plaintiff Navajo Nation because of their strong interest in ensuring its members are able to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The Navajo Nation has a strong and demonstrated interest in ensuring its members are able to excise (sic exercise) their right to vote on Election Day. If Navajo Nation members are unable to vote, the collective power and voice of the Navajo Nation is reduced.”
Attorneys for the Navajo Nation argued that by “failing to open the polling places on time,” the county and state election officials had violated Arizona election laws.
They asked the Apache County Superior Court to expand polling hours until 9 p.m.
‘A mad dash” for Navajo voters.
Jared Keenan, Legal Director for the ACLU of Arizona, said it took several hours to get all the information, including a declaration from Kee himself about the situation, and draft the complaint before the courts closed at 5 p.m.
“It was sort of a mad dash at the end, but it all worked out,” Keenan said of how hectic the process was in getting all the files done in time.
Jared said it was a very “cut-and-dry” case because the location was not open during the official polling hours, which helped validate the claim for keeping the polling sites open for the two more hours that voters lost in the morning.
The emergency hearing was at 7 p.m., as polls across the state were closing. It only took 10 minutes for Apache County Superior Court Judge Garrett Whiting to approve the emergency order.
“I think the ruling certainly helped voters, and likely helped Native American voters cast their ballots yesterday,” Keenan said.
Whiting ordered Apache County officials to publicize “through all available means” its outreach to inform voters of the extended voting hours until 9 p.m. He mandated county officials use any websites, social media outlets and news outlets that defendants and plaintiffs have access to “so that word can be spread.”
The Apache County Recorder’s Office website updated with a statement in bold capital letters splashed across the top like a banner: “BY COURT ORDER, THE MANY FARMS PRECINCT, #39, WHOSE POLLING SITE IS LOCATED AT THE MANY FARMS SENIOR CENTER, WILL BE OPEN UNTIL 9 P.M.”
However, as of late Wednesday, one day after Kee and other voters were unable to exercise their constitutional right to vote, the official Twitter account of the Apache County Recorder’s Office showed no notice that officials followed the court’s ruling to inform voters of the extended hours at the Many Farms Senior Center polling site.
Kee does not know if his ballot will count. But he fought to protect the constitutional rights of Navajo voters. And he won.