For Some Native Americans, No Home Address Might Mean No Voting

By: - October 4, 2019 12:00 am

SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — At the end of a labyrinth of red dirt roads and surrounded by the rusty cliffs of nearby mesas, Marthleen and Shuan Stephenson live on an isolated desert homestead on the sprawling Navajo Nation.

Until last month, you couldn’t find their home using a traditional address. Instead, the directions went like this: “Turn off U.S. Highway 191 between mile markers 1 and 2. It’s a blue house with a tan roof.”

The couple felt like they were living in the dark, separated from modern times.

“Out there, it’s city streets, apartments and house numbers,” he said.

“But we don’t have anything out here,” she added.

Like the Stephensons’, most homes on the Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah lack street addresses. That means packages must be shipped to businesses or relatives who live in town, many miles away. Most on the reservation get their regular mail at post office boxes, which are sometimes located in Arizona. Emergency responders, given vague home locations, are often delayed.

But it is the impact on voting that has many indigenous rights advocates deeply concerned.

“In Indian Country, you don’t have a 123 Elm Street address,” said James Tucker, a pro bono voting rights counsel for the Native American Rights Fund.

“It limits your gateway to even be able to register to vote, to putting your foot through the door to participate from the get-go.”

County by county, election administrators must know exactly where voters live to assign accurate precincts, which then determine which ballot a voter receives, which offices she votes for and at which polling location she casts a ballot. In Utah and many other largely rural states, residents can register to vote by describing their approximate location on registration forms, or even draw a rudimentary map, which is allowed by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. 

But in states with strict voter identification laws, officials typically require a traditional address. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court just weeks before the midterm elections declined to block a North Dakota law requiring IDs with street addresses. P.O. boxes would not suffice, the court ruled, sending local tribes and activists into a frenzy trying to meet the new standard.

Now voting rights advocates are searching for ways to assign addresses to rural, indigenous communities ahead of the 2020 general election, knowing that it may be only a matter of time before county and state governments crack down on non-traditional addresses on reservations.

For Navajo residents of southeastern Utah, a new addressing system developed with the assistance of Google might help.

Addressing the Unaddressed

The Navajo Nation has 50,000 unaddressed homes and businesses, creating complications for hundreds of thousands of people.

The mostly desert-covered reservation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, encompasses more than 27,000 square miles. It will take an unknowable number of years to assign addresses throughout the reservation, said M. C. Baldwin, the rural addressing coordinator at the Navajo Nation Addressing Authority, the tribal office tasked with identifying and addressing homes and businesses there.

Limited by a three-person staff, massive swaths of land, a lack of broadband access and limited funding, his office has set addresses for fewer than 1,000 buildings on the reservation. The obstacles include not just identifying buildings but also jumping over bureaucratic hurdles, such as naming roads through official resolutions and dealing with the local politics of 110 different chapter houses — the governing boards that make up the Navajo Nation.

“There’s a lot of work that we have to do before we even get to the point where we can install the first sign,” said Baldwin, who often goes out alone putting up new street posts and hanging numbers on homes.

He’s eager for help.

When organizers for the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Rural Utah Project set out to register 1,600 new voters from the Navajo Nation in the runup to the 2018 midterm elections, staff soon realized what they were up against: One-fifth of Navajo voters in the county were filed in the wrong precinct, which meant they sometimes voted in the wrong school board races. At least 70% of Navajo voters in the county, the project found, were filed under P.O. boxes, while the rest were filed using vague descriptions of their home locations.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.