A federal court has sided with the Navajo Nation by ordering San Juan County to create new voting districts that grant equal power to Navajo voters.
The lawsuit claimed that although Native Americans make up half of San Juan County’s population, they’ve been gerrymandered into permanent minority status. Last month, in a scathing opinion, District Judge Robert Shelby agreed, concluding that, for the past 25 years the county has “relied on race” to draw it’s voting districts, and has been violating the 14th and 15th Amendments and “offending basic democratic principles.”
On the heels of the decision the Navajo Human Rights Commission has filed a separate lawsuit over the county’s mail-in only elections. John Mejia is head of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union, which is assisting with the suit calling for access to precinct polling places and language translators.
“Well, the purpose of the lawsuit is to try and make sure that that does happen and that it does happen as soon as possible,” said Mejia. “The current mail-in only system does put Navajo voters at a significant disadvantage, and we believe violates the Voting Rights Act in a very significant way.”
In 2014 San Juan County instituted mail-in only balloting, closed down its voting precincts, and discontinued its language assistance program for Navajos. The county is justifying the decision by pointing to an increased turnout in some of the Navajo precincts. But Mejia said registration remains low and that voting rights, not statistics, are the issue.
“The analysis isn’t tied to whether the voting went up or down,” he said. “The question is, did the system that the county put into place make it significantly more difficult for people to vote?”
Overall, Utah has the third lowest voter turnout in the nation. Some analysts say this is due to “lack of competitive choices.” In some Utah counties mail-in only balloting has resulted in sometimes dramatically increased turnout. The Navajos say it’s not so effective on the reservation, with its remote outposts and villages, antiquated postal system and the likelihood that ballots will be mistaken for junk mail and thrown in the trash.
“The mail-in only system does make it much more difficult in concrete ways for Navajo people to vote,” said Mejia. “So this lawsuit alleges, and we believe, that the county commission needs to go back to precinct voting so that the people who need language assistance can receive that language assistance.”
Phil Lyman is one of three San Juan County commissioners who has unanimously supported the status quo. Lyman said the new lawsuit is “spurious” and is the result of a vendetta by former commissioners who have “an axe to grind.”
“One hundred percent connected to the local politics,” he said. “And the same players, the same ones that are pushing for a national monument, are trying to sue San Juan County on this.”
Lyman said he agrees with representative Jason Chaffetz, who recently charged that Navajo activists are “troublemakers for a paycheck.”
“I guess troublemakers is probably too kind of a term,” said Lyman. “I think people are willing to prostitute themselves for a paycheck.”
Lyman says the lawsuits are hurting the county economically and are attempts by outsiders to thwart local control.
“The appalling thing to me is that you’ve got a federal judge who entertains this crap,” he said. “And I don’t know what San Juan County’s response is, other than, you know, filing lawsuits ourselves. It’s just so unproductive.”
Lyman also argues that San Juan County has been uniquely singled out.
“Did you know that the Navajo Nation vote is all done in English?” he said. “They don’t have Navajo language ballots or written things. It’s all done in English. And you got Navajos up here in Salt Lake, probably close to as many Navajos in Salt Lake as you have in San Juan County. They don’t go out of their way to accommodate them. The only place where this has been raised as an issue is in San Juan County, not because they were concerned about the voting, because there was a record turnout.”
Federal language assistance requirements do not apply for towns like Salt Lake City where the minority is less than five percent. On its web site, the U.S. Justice Department lists dozens of U.S. counties that, since 1988, have come under court orders to provide language assistance.