PHOENIX (AP) – As a girl growing up on the Navajo Nation in the 1950s and ’60s, LeNora Fulton remembers her parents making a major event out of voting.
Her father would polish his boots. Her mother would put on jewelry. They would drive 50 miles to the polling place in Fort Defiance and make a day of it.
“It was a social event as well,” said Fulton, 59. “It was something that was very special.”
Those were the tribal elections, held at the chapter houses of each community.
Fulton doesn’t think her mother and father ever registered to vote on county, state or federal matters. Fulton, who now is in charge of elections in Apache County, didn’t register herself until she was 30.
Although voting was part of the Navajo culture, the significance of it didn’t extend to any elections not on the reservation. Fulton can see, looking back, how this wasn’t by chance.
Native Americans were barred from voting by court order until 1948. And once they were allowed, literacy tests and an English ballot kept participation rates low.
It wasn’t until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation championed by Martin Luther King Jr. aimed at ending discriminatory practices in the South that kept African-Americans from voting, that Navajos also started registering in significant numbers. After that act, Apache County saw its first Native American county official elected and now reliably has representation in the Arizona Legislature and in city and county offices.
As Apache County recorder, Fulton’s job is to ensure the county follows court decrees aimed at encouraging Navajo registration. The county is under Justice Department orders to provide outreach offices on the reservation and translations of the ballot into the Navajo language. Both are necessary to fulfill provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
“Even if it wasn’t required, we realize there are people who need the translation,” said Fulton, the first Native American to be elected as a county recorder in Arizona.
“We feel it is an obligation for us to continue to provide it so people have adequate knowledge of what they are voting for,” she said.
The Voting Rights Act had its roots in Selma, Ala. King led marches and protests against political leaders there who worked to keep blacks off the voting rolls.
“Voting is the foundation stone for political action,” King wrote in an article for The New York Times in March 1965. “With it the Negro can eventually vote out of office public officials who bar the doorway to decent housing, public safety, jobs and decent integrated education.”
The four-page essay did not mention the plight of Navajos. But while the law was aimed at the South, the actual language applied to any area with low voter registration.
That included Apache County, which includes part of the Navajo Nation. Under the law, literacy tests would be banned and the federal government could take over voter registration in affected areas.