Virtual panel discusses Native American voting rights in Arizona

Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News



Policy makers, legal experts and Gila River Indian Community leadership joined a virtual talk on the importance of voting called, “Celebrating Native American Voting Rights in Arizona,” which was hosted by the Arizona State University American Indian Legal Program on Sept. 23. 


The streamed event included Maria Dadgar Executive Director for the Intertribal Council of Arizona, Derrick Beetso, General Council, National Congress of American Indians and Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis and Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Faculty Director, Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University. 


Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis talked about the history of voting rights in Arizona dating back to 1928 when Gila River Indian Community members Rudolph Johnson and Peter Porter were denied the right to vote.


Known as Porter v. Hall, it was a lawsuit by Porter and Johnson to achieve the right to vote, which was overturned, based on the federal government’s interpretation on the status of Native American citizenship, as wards of the U.S. 


This was part of a series of complicated federal policies for Native people in the state of Arizona who were unable to vote. It wasn’t until 1948 when Native people were allowed to vote in the state of Arizona. 

Gov. Lewis highlighted the Community’s efforts to encourage voter turnout, which included the census count and virtual rallies. 


“[Our] vote is our arrow, we decide where it goes,” said Stephen Roe Lewis.

The Indian Legal Program has led protection election voter efforts for Native Americans to address the disproportionate voting turnout and representation among tribal community’s due to unfair voting practices at the local and federal level.  


One of their efforts is election protection, which employs legal volunteers and a hotline to document voting violations against their rights. 


“We were partnering with tribes when they were having live events, staff from ITCA would show up and provide information,” said Dadgar. 


Due to the pandemic, ITCA has mobilized more services toward more social media and video conferencing and other services to Native people, such as assisting with voter registration forms. 

Beetso highlighted the importance of voter registration.


“We have a duty to vote, to register to vote and to participate in the electoral process,” said Beetso. 

The fight for Native voting rights included barriers such as guardianship, taxation and others that disqualified them from voting.


“The taxation issues…and literacy tests were barriers to voting. There was also a requirement in some states in order to participate in the right to vote, you had to denounce your tribal citizenship,” said Beesto. 


He said these barriers were devised to suppress the Native right to vote. Beetso said there are still barriers today, such as geographical isolation, lack of resources, language barriers, and access to other forms of communication, informing others about voting and where to cast their ballot.