/ Modified may 13, 2021 12:21 p.m.

Navajo Nation opposes new law for unsigned mail-in ballots

Due to the rural nature of the Navajo Nation, it argues voters need more time after an election to correct ballot issues.

2020 ballot with Pen 2 hero An Arizona mail-in ballot from the 2020 election.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill into law last week that only allows voters to fix unsigned mail-in ballots till Election Day. The Navajo Nation has been advocating for voters to have more time after an election to correction missing signatures for years.

The law, SB 1003, allows election officials to contact voters about unsigned ballots and voters to fix them till 7 p.m. on Election Day. If the ballot isn't corrected by then, it's not counted. This differs from the how mismatched signatures are treated in primary, general or special elections that include a federal office, which gives people five business days after the election to correct the signature.

"The actions of certain state lawmakers and Gov. Ducey is belittling to all 22 Arizona tribes," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a press release. "Their failure to listen to tribes and understand the unique challenges we face when it comes to voter registration and access to voting sites will have disproportionate impacts on Native American people."

Katherine Belzowski is the acting assistant attorney general for the Economic Community Unit within the Navajo Nation's Department of Justice.

She said in 2018 the Navajo Nation saw the disparity in deadlines for mismatched or missing signatures on mail-in ballots in the state and across the counties, which set some of these deadlines. It decided to file a lawsuit to rectify the issues experienced in the 2018 election.

"This different treatment between the voters and how their ballots were handled provided enough inconsistency and confusion amongst our voters that it needed to be addressed," Belzowski said.

The nation wanted voters to have five business days after an election to address unsigned ballots, just as they did for mismatched signatures in the 2018 election, especially since there are fewer early voting options in the nation than on non-tribal lands in the state.

It reached settlements with the Arizona Secretary of State and the three counties that span the Navajo Nation in Arizona — Coconino, Navajo and Apache counties. The settlement with the Secretary of State’s office agreed to include the 5-day policy in the 2019 draft election procedures manual, but the final version later approved by Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich did not include the policy.

Belzowski said the rural nature of the Navajo Nation, which is about the size of West Virginia, means some people may have to drive 200 miles one-way to get to the county seat to fix or sign a mail-in ballot.

On top of that, she said home addresses are rare in the nation and being notified there's a problem takes time because some people only make a weekly trip to their P.O. Box.

"The more time that's provided to these voters to get notice that there's an issue with their ballot and then for them to actually address that issue, the better just because it's a matter of time and distance," Belzowski said. "It's not as simple as just walking down the block and changing it."

She said the tribe's considering whether to challenge the new law but hasn't decided yet.

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