Judge denies early Pascua Yaqui voting site, ending years-long feud

A federal judge said that forcing Pima County to add an early voting center for the Pascua Yaqui tribe, this close to the election, would overburden an elections office “already stretched to its breaking point.” And the tribe failed to show its voters were harmed by the lack of the center, the judge ruled. (File photo by Natasha Khan/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The Pascua Yaqui Tribe will not get the early voting location it has been asking for since 2018, after a federal judge flatly denied the request he said would overburden an elections office “already stretched to its breaking point.”

The ruling by U.S. District Judge James Soto Thursday night was the second blow to Native voting rights advocates in as many weeks. A federal appellate court last week rejected a request to allow extra time for mail-in ballots from the Navajo Nation.

Pascua Yaqui officials said they were disappointed by Soto’s ruling, but were glad they had brought the case.

“Pascua Yaqui voters’ voices deserve to be heard – whether it’s one vote or a thousand votes,” said Pascua Yaqui Tribal Chairman Peter S. Yucupicio in a statement Thursday night.

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez, the subject of the suit, called it “unfortunate that it came to” a lawsuit, but said she stands by her decisions.

“Pima County has 9,000 square miles, so you got to ration out” early voting locations based on various factors, she said Friday.

The tribe filed its suit against Rodriguez last week in an attempt to force her to reinstate an early voting site on its reservation in southern Tucson, the latest turn in a two-year long dispute that started when Rodriguez got rid of the location six weeks before the 2018 election.

Tribal officials argued that it can take tribal members up to two hours, round trip, to reach the closest early voting location since many tribal members have to travel by bus. Early voting is particularly urgent in the face of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Native American communities, the tribe argued.

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Several tribal members testified before Soto this week on “the particular burden that closing this early voting site caused.” The tribe sought a week of early voting, emergency voting the weekend before Election Day and a ballot-drop location.

“Early voting is especially important this year for Native American voters in Pima County, who … strongly prefer to vote in person rather than by mail,” the tribe said in its motion for a preliminary injunction.

But Soto said the tribe had not proved that the potential burden on tribal voters outweighed the burden Rodriguez’s office would face if she was ordered to reopen the early voting site.

“The recorder’s office is extremely busy, and is currently dealing with numerous moving parts leading up to the election, and is already stretched to its breaking point,” Soto wrote.

In fact, the tribe didn’t even show that “any tribal member on the reservation will be denied the ability to vote in the general election without such a site,” Soto wrote.

Rodriguez had argued, and Soto agreed, that the tribe should have gone to court sooner, saying that with under two weeks to Election Day, it was too late to set up the new site. But the tribe said that it only brought the lawsuit after “exhausting every advocacy tool in their arsenal.”

“It’s not like the tribe has been sitting on their hands for two years not doing anything,” said Jonathan Diaz, an attorney for the Pascua Yaqui. “When the normal advocacy and political process failed, they turned to the courts and they have every right to vindicate their constitutional rights in court the same as anyone else.”

Soto said that while it was “commendable” that the tribe had tried to settle the dispute without litigation, “at a certain point timely legal action must be taken,” especially with a rapidly approaching election. A rushed decision is not in anyone’s interest, he said.

In a Tuesday hearing before Soto, Sambo Dul, an official with the secretary of state’s office, said the office could still provide a mobile unit and ballot drop-off box at a tribal location if the judge ruled in their favor this week.

But Soto said funding wasn’t the point. Rodriguez’s office is currently “processing about 25,000 ballots each day. Their employees are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of voters, lines, and ballots,” he said. The office is already losing employees under the strain of the election, and Rodriguez should not be expected to find volunteers to work the Pascua Yaqui early voting site, too.

Rodriguez agreed, saying, “I have a major election to conduct for this country.”

If the tribe decides to appeal, she said, that is their right but, “In the meantime, I’m dealing with, you know, the other citizens of Pima County.”

Soto also said that the preference for in-person voting was not enough, siding with Rodriguez’s argument that “mere voter inconvenience with respect to early voting does not constitute a burden on any individual’s constitutional rights.”

The tribe had support from Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and three of the five Pima County Supervisors.

Voting advocates say it was important for the tribe to make its voice heard, even though it wasn’t successful this time.

“In a global sense … what a lot of these voting rights cases can do is highlight, you know, deficiencies in the election system, even if ultimately, a federal court decides that it’s not appropriate for them to step in, or … say, it’s too late to make this change,” Diaz said.

For now, “the Tribe is committed to ensuring that our voters cast their votes,” said Pascua Yaqui Tribal Councilwoman Herminia Frias in a statement.

“Although that won’t be at our early voting location this year, our team is preparing outreach to ensure that our voters have a voting plan,” her statement 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.