New commission districts and better voter assistance make this November’s election a historic opportunity for Native American residents of San Juan County

In mid-September, ACLU of Utah staffers Rachel Appel and Leah Farrell left Salt Lake City for the 375-mile drive south to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in San Juan County. They weren’t headed there to hike the red rocks or raft the rivers, but instead to talk to voters attending the Navajo Nation’s 2018 Community Celebration. This November’s election could prove historic for San Juan County. Late last year, a federal judge ruled that the county’s commission districts were gerrymandered to discriminate against the county’s Native American population. Despite 49% of the county identifying as Native American, the county’s voting map concentrated these voters in just one commission district, effectively giving white voters majority representation in the other two. Under court order, the districts were independently redrawn, resulting in—for the first time—two commission districts and three school board districts containing a majority Navajo population. Based on these new boundaries, the November election could shift political power in San Juan County to Native American residents for the first time in modern history.

Building a Case

The morning of the Community Celebration, Farrell and Appel drove to The View Restaurant—named for its stunning vistas of Monument Valley’s iconic landscape—to have breakfast with Leonard Gorman and Lauren Benally from the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC). Gorman, NNHRC Executive Director, was quick to remind everyone that it might be premature to call the day’s event a “celebration” with so much work still to be done. But everyone realized that significant progress—mostly in the courts—had laid the groundwork to make the upcoming election possible.

Separate from the redistricting lawsuit, the ACLU of Utah sued San Juan County in 2016 after election officials switched to mail-only voting and closed all but one in-person voting location. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the NNHRC, demanded that polling locations be kept open on the Navajo Nation along with effective language assistance to Navajo-speaking voters. This past February, the ACLU of Utah reached a positive settlement with the county that confirms the satellite voting centers will remain open and provide effective English-to-Navajo interpretation. The ACLU of Utah continues to monitor the county’s compliance with the terms of the settlement.

Finally, a third legal challenged flared to life this summer when the San Juan County Clerk/Auditor disqualified Willie Grayeyes—a Navajo running for a county commission seat—from participating in the election based on accusations that Grayeyes lived in Arizona. After a federal judge reversed the clerk’s decision based on due process violations, the public learned that the county clerk had backdated the original complaint against Grayeyes’ residency.

At the Celebration

After breakfast, Farrell and Appel walked to the Tribal Park Welcome Center as the Community Celebration began with speakers encouraging the 200 attendees to check their voter registration and be politically active. Leah and Rachel listened to Navajo residents talk excitedly about the opportunity for change this fall as everyone dined on mutton stew and cornbread. Other attendees raised concerns about voting barriers that remain for residents of the Navajo Nation—including errors in the voter records. Similar to other rural areas, many homes on the Navajo Nation lack a street address due to the region’s dispersed housing and lack of named roads. While people have adapted by utilizing P.O. boxes located many miles from their residence, and sometimes across the border in Arizona, voting problems arise because San Juan County officials use these P.O. boxes and inexact coordinates to locate the homes of Navajo Nation residents registering to vote. Melding the Navajo Nation’s traditional way of life with the county’s street-based approach to voter registration doesn’t work.

When the NNHRC joined with the Rural Utah Project (RUP) to survey 585 voters living on the Navajo Nation, they discovered that 88% of respondents were living at a different location from their registration place. One out of five voters were registered in the wrong precinct. In some cases, county records located homes of registered voters in the middle of bodies of water. The San Juan County Clerk/Auditor acknowledges the errors, but locals say he is putting the burden on Navajo Nation residents to identify the mistakes. To chip away at this serious problem, RUP staffers brought their laptops to the event and worked with attendees to confirm and sometimes correct their voter registration information.

As the November general election approaches, the ACLU of Utah, RUP, and the NNHRC are closely monitoring the voting process in San Juan County to ensure that election officials adhere to the settlement agreement. Our primary goal is that all residents of San Juan County can fully exercise their right to vote—and this year we will be on the ground to make sure it happens.

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2018 Fall Newsletter >>