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Story Publication logo November 9, 2022

On Tohono O’Odham Nation, Voters Turn Out Over COVID-19, Abortion Rights

Politician speaks with constituents at a public event

Arizona is an epicenter of election disinformation, and dozens of candidates up and down the ballot...


Gary and Cathy Conde voted in person at the Baboquivari District Office in the Topawa community on the Tohono O'odham Nation on Nov. 8, 2022. Image by Noel Lyn Smith/The Republic. United States, 2022.

TOPAWA, Arizona—Gary Conde, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, backed Republican candidates in the midterm elections on Nov. 8.

Conde said he voted for Republican candidates because he thinks the tribe’s approach to issues like COVID-19 and inflation leans “very far left.”

He said his point of view formed after seeing the tribe’s handling of COVID-19, including face mask mandates and lockdowns.

“I don’t like it that a lot of the people couldn’t think for themselves, and this is a thing where I think a lot of the nation members should have woken up by now,” he said.

Conde, 39, and his wife, Cathy, own a heating and cooling business. Both said inflation has hit them as a family and as business owners.

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Because the cost of HVAC parts and materials keeps rising, they have been passing the added pricing onto customers, they said.

Conde did not have trouble voting Tuesday at the Baboquivari District Office.

“The 20-plus years I've been voting, I've never felt suppressed in being able to vote. I've never felt that my vote never counted,” he said.

At the Sells District Office, a large white tent was situated in an open area near the building.

Staff from the administration office served menudo and coffee to voters and community members.

Frances Juan, 36, was among the employees passing out T-shirts, clipboards, water bottles, storage containers, wallets and first aid kits as incentives to vote.

Sells District Administration Office employee Frances Juan, center, helps distribute items to voters on Nov. 8, 2022, at the office on the Tohono O'odham Nation. Image by Noel Lyn Smith/The Republic. United States, 2022.

Voter integrity weighed on Juan’s mind. She said she worries about the future of mail-in ballots, a voting option many tribal members use.

Juan received her ballot by mail but missed the deadline to mail it back, so she returned it Tuesday morning at the voting center set up inside the district office.

“Because for the protection of our rights, there's a lot of things at stake with this election,” she said. Juan said she is concerned about abortion rights, immigration and those who deny the results of the 2020 election.

Juan Buendia, chairman of the Sells District, said laws about voter identification are troubling for tribal members because physical residential addresses are mostly nonexistent on the nation.

Community members saw street signs installed this year, a project that has been under some form of development since the 1980s, Buendia said. It is a step in helping voters, he said. Despite the challenge, he said the Pima County Elections Department “has been open and understanding that it is difficult here” to provide residential addresses.

He’s worried about potential future restrictions on voting, though.

“If things keep going the way that they're going, we might have a lot more difficulties trying to make sure that we're all able to still participate,” he said.

The tribe has 11 districts, and each has a chairperson and a vice chairperson who represent the district.

The Sells District has 2,423 members who live in the district and 2,843 members who reside elsewhere, according to tribal data from 2016. While the district has the largest enrollment number, it faces low voter turnout among young people.

Buendia said they held Tuesday’s in-person event to help boost voter participation.

“Trying to encourage the younger generation is a task,” he said. “I know a lot of people feel like it doesn't affect them. But ultimately what comes down from the state, even federal, is important.”


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