From showdown to stalemate, Pascua Yaqui voting site feud continues

Pascua Yaqui leaders said they still hope to find an answer to their push to reopen a polling place on their land, after a Pima County Board of Supervisors effort failed. The county recorder has defended the decision to close the polling place and said it is too late to change course for this fall’s election. (Photo by Natasha Khan/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – What was a showdown between the Pascua Yaqui tribe, the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the county’s recorder has now turned into a stalemate.

The supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to authorize an emergency voting site to replace a polling place that the tribe has been trying to get restored for the last two years. While the board cannot order the site opened, Supervisor Betty Villegas said she hoped the resolution would pressure the recorder to “do the right thing.”

Pima Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez did not appear to feel the pressure.

In a brief letter Wednesday to Pascua Yaqui Tribal Chairman Peter Yucupicio, Rodriguez advised the tribe to contact the supervisors who voted for the resolution “to determine exactly how THEY plan on implementing THEIR resolution.”

Voting rights activist Alex Gulotta criticized the “unprofessional, almost childlike” tone of the letter.

“It’s just inappropriate for a governmental official to act to anyone that way,” said Gulotta, Arizona state director for All Voting is Local. “But let alone like, respond to an official correspondence from a sovereign nation with the kind of letter she responded with – it’s, it’s offensive.”

But Rodriguez has consistently defended her decision to close the little-used Pascua Yaqui polling place before the 2018 elections, pushing back against tribal allegations that she removed the site with little warning.

In a Sept. 3 letter to the supervisors, Rodriguez detailed the extensive efforts she took to decide whether to keep an early voting location on tribal land after the Department of Homeland Security increased voting security requirements after the 2016 election.

“I do not make these decisions lightly and I do not make them arbitrarily,” she wrote then.

Rodriguez cited instances when, she said, the tribe did not fully cooperate with her efforts, and outlined ways in a Sept. 1 press release the tribe could work to register and turn out more tribal voters. Her office said she stands by the Sept. 3 letter in which she said it is “far too late into the cycle to make a change now.”

Gulotta disagrees, saying other counties are still adding voting locations and that Rodriguez just “wants to use ‘it’s too late’ as an excuse. This is not something that just like came up out of the blue.”

And Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said in a statement Friday her office has funds to support any expenses needed to grant the tribe’s request, adding that she supports “any increase in early voting statewide, including the request by Pascua Yaqui tribal leaders.”

Tribal leaders insist the site is still needed, particularly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many elderly tribal members don’t have cars to reach the closest early voting site, which takes two hours round-trip by bus to reach.

The supervisors’ resolution authorized emergency voting on the Saturday and Monday before Election Day and early voting throughout the two weeks before then. The 3-2 vote included two supervisors saying they did not think it was appropriate for the board to override Rodriguez’s decision.

But while the board can authorize emergency voting, Rodriguez would have to implement the new location and only she could approve additional early voting days.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry made clear in a Sept. 8 memo that it would be difficult – if not impossible – for the site to be run without Rodriguez’s blessing and resources, since elections officials would need access to the recorder’s database and a ballot machine.

Villegas concedes that the resolution is largely symbolic.

“We’re authorizing her but there’s no real authority to make her do that,” said Villegas, whose district includes the Pascua Yaqui lands. “But it does put some pressure on her to do the right thing.”

Even though Rodriguez is the head of elections, Villegas said Tuesday, “it’s not for her to say that they don’t need” the voting site. “They’re a sovereign nation.” Villegas said the tribe has collected hundreds of signatures and she has received over 200 emails in support of the tribe’s request.

Pascua Yaqui Tribal Councilwoman Herminia Frias said the tribe is willing to work with Rodriguez and is hopeful a meeting can be set up next week.

The tribal council is also scheduled to meet next week and a lawsuit is “not off the table, and is something that we have discussed,” Frias said Friday. But nothing official has been decided and “we don’t want to resort to that.”

“We’re hopeful we can still resolve this,” she said.

Even after Rodriguez’s Wednesday letter, Villegas said she does not plan to give up. She said she emailed Rodriguez Thursday to set up a time to discuss the situation, hoping to at least get the two days of emergency voting the weekend before the election.

“I’m not going to stop until I hit the wall,” Villegas said.

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Calah Schlabach is a multimedia storyteller pursuing a master’s degree in mass communication. She has been a graduate assistant for Global Sport Matters and a 2020 News21 fellow. Schlabach was a grant writer for a social services nonprofit and has written and copy editied in Vietnam and Haiti.