Judge won't order early voting site on Pascua Yaqui land

PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday refused to order a southern Arizona election official to open an early voting and ballot collection site for the Nov. 3 election on a Native American reservation on the edge of Tucson.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge James Soto rejected an effort by the Pascua Yaqui tribe to force Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez to open an early voting site. Rodriguez cited low usage and other factors for her decision to stop running a site on the reservation after the 2016 election.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe last week filed a lawsuit seeking an order for Rodriguez to operate early voting and ballot collection sites on its reservation from Oct. 26 through Nov. 2.

The tribe, which had early voting from 2010 through 2016, was told by Rodriguez’s office weeks before the 2018 primary election that it was closing the reservation’s only early voting site and instead opening a new site off tribal land.

Soto noted that the tribe waited until just three weeks before Election Day to sue, and he said it had not made a case that any tribal members will be denied the ability to vote without such a site. He also said the tribe has options to help members vote, including taking those without transportation to the nearest site using the tribe's fleet of vehicles.

Soto also said issuing such an order would cause great harm to the Recorder, which is already nearly overwhelmed with work processing last-minute registrations and working to verify signatures on returned early ballots.

“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's ruling said.

The lawsuit said many Yaquis who don’t have a vehicle would have to take two buses to travel the 8 miles (13 km) to the closest polling place and that the early voting site’s closure results in an unequal opportunity for Native Americans to participate in the election.

While there are no early voting sites on the reservation, there will be one polling place open on Election Day at the tribe’s wellness center.

During a two-day hearing that ended Tuesday, the tribe sought to prove that Rodriguez's decision violated the constitutional rights of tribal members.

Rodriguez's lawyer said the decision was made for rational reasons and did not violate either the Voting Rights Act or the U.S. Constitution and that there virtually no additional hardship for tribal voters, who can vote at the other site, use mail or vote in person on Election Day.

"The burden is somewhere between slight and non-existent here,” attorney Eric Spencer said Tuesday.

Danielle Lang, an attorney representing the tribe, said Rodriguez had “no good reason for denying the Pascua Yaqui tribe equal access to early voting and ballot drop-off sites.”

She noted that the Secretary of State has offered to provide a trailer for voting and pay the costs and that other elected officials had urged Rodriguez to open an early voting center but she had refused to do so.

“Singlehandedly, Recorder Rodriguez has violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution,” Lang told the judge.

Soto's ruling rejected that contention.