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Native Americans Voice Concerns Over AZ Redistricting Maps


Wednesday, December 15, 2021   

TUCSON, Ariz. - As Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission prepares to issue its final voting-district maps, Native American groups are concerned the new boundaries could diminish their voting power.

They say the bipartisan commission, which does not need to clear its maps in advance with federal officials, may have divided the tribal vote. The maps are based on the 2020 census, and there's deep suspicion this population was undercounted.

Patty Ferguson Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic and associate professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, said changes to the Voting Rights Act have made it easier to disenfranchise Native Americans.

"The concern is whether the population is sufficient to provide an opportunity to Native Americans to elect a candidate of choice," she said. "Because Section 5 is not in play, there's not the threat of an objection from the Department of Justice."

The commission took comments during a series of public meetings, but Bohnee said highly organized, well-funded political groups tend to drown out smaller constituencies. Commission members have said they believe they fulfilled their mission to draw fair and competitive legislative district maps.

Bohnee said Arizona has a long history of disenfranchising Native Americans, from statehood into the 1970s. Because most live on tribal lands, she said, it's easy to dilute their power.

"Based on past redistricting efforts, we know that Native Americans need a higher percentage of the voting-age population to elect candidates of choice," she said. "But because of that, it's going to make the rural-urban divide even greater."

Gabriella Casarez-Kelly is the Pima County recorder and one of the state's first Indigenous office holders. Before she was elected, she was a community activist working to increase Native American voter participation.

"One of the struggles in my community work and in my work as an elected official," she said, "is really trying to demystify government, is to demystify the process and demystify where the decisions are coming from."

The commission is scheduled to complete its maps by year's end. Pending any legal action, the new districts will be in place for the 2022 midterm elections.

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