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Attorneys, alumni turn out to help with Native vote protection
For Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, voting is a privilege and a duty. And like millions of Americans who feel it is their civic right to participate in national and state elections, she went to her polling place on Nov. 6 to vote. She also helps ensure the right for all Native Americans to vote.
Ferguson-Bohnee, Faculty Director of the Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and director of the Indian Legal Clinic, assists in complex voting-rights litigation on behalf of tribes and drafts state legislative and congressional testimony on behalf of tribal clients with respect to voting-rights issues.
She also serves as coordinator for the Native Vote Election Protection Program for the State of Arizona. The program partners with several tribal councils and the State Bar of Arizona to combat voter disenfranchisement among Native Americans.
“Our goal is to anticipate problems by studying past elections and taking necessary measures to prevent the same issues from reccurring,” said Ferguson-Bohnee, a member of the Point-au-Chien Indian Tribe and former associate in the Indian Law and Tribal Relations Practice Group at the Phoenix Law firm of Sacks Tierney P.A.
During recent elections, Native voters have experienced issues such as not receiving their ballots in the mail, being given faulty provisional ballots, and having their identification questioned, she said.
“In some cases the problem was excessively long lines, in others it was problems with identification or registration,” Ferguson-Bohnee said.
The Clinic also took reports of incidents involving voters who felt unwelcome or intimidated when they showed up at their polling stations.
“Many times, people simply have been turned away from the polls,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “Six formal complaints of police stopping people outside were filed this year alone.”
Ferguson-Bohnee said the Clinic and its students have developed a training program to teach poll volunteers how to help Native voters. In order to help prevent these abuses, Native Vote organized a command center in downtown Phoenix where calls were taken on the Native Vote Hotline to help solve issues Native voters had on Election Day.
More than 50 volunteers worked at the command center, which assisted hundreds of individuals on 11 tribal reservations on Election Day.
Ed Hermes, a student in the Clinic, was a coordinator for the Native Vote Election Protection Program.
“Historically, Native American voters have been discriminated against and today, even after many of the legal barriers have come down, Native voters continue to face unique barriers to voting,” Hermes said.
He said Native voters living on reservations often do not have specific addresses or easy access to state identification cards, and this makes voting difficult. Each year, he and other clinic students educate Arizona counties on the unique issues Native Americans face.
“I had a great experience with the program,” Hermes said. “Our work was invaluable.”
Jackie Johnson, an associate at Quarles & Brady, showed up at 6 a.m. at a polling place near the Gila River Indian Community to help with any issues that might arise.
“I’m native on my Mom’s side, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes,” Johnson said. “It’s good civic duty to make sure people’s rights are being protected.”
Michael-Corey F. Hinton (Class of 2011), now an associate with Aiken Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C., flew in to help on the Gila River Indian Community.
“The attorneys in my office want to help out,” said Hinton, who is Passamaquoddy.
Jennifer Giff, an ILP faculty associate and College of Law alumna, said she enjoyed being involved in the Native Vote project, because her time at two polling sites on the Gila River Indian Community provided a valuable service to the community.
“Native Vote reassured voters of the process and emphasized that every vote counts,” she said.
Giff said she and other volunteers gave voters information they needed to cast their ballots in their assigned polling locations, and to obtain additional documentation, if needed.
“The Clinic students put on a great training for the volunteers and provided immediate support to the workers out in the field,” Giff said.
“The public appreciated that we were able to assist them with their questions,” she said. “It was a worthwhile volunteer effort.”