The voting rights of the Native American residents of San Juan County is the topic of two separate legal claims.
An ongoing legal action against the county claims that both the San Juan County Commission voting districts and the San Juan School Board voting districts deny Native American voters “equal weight in representation”.
In another matter, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission claims that the 2014 election, which used only mail-in ballots, had a negative impact on Navajo voters. The Human Rights Commission is threatening to file a lawsuit regarding the program.
The voting rights issues go back several decades, culminating in a restructuring of the commission voting districts in the late 1980s. Before that time, there had been no Native Americans elected to the three-person San Juan County Commission.
Since that restructuring, which was under the direction of the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Justice, there have been two Anglos and one Native American member of the County Commission.
Similarly, since the school voting districts were adjusted in 1992, there have been two Native Americans and three Anglo members on the five-person San Juan School Board.
Leonard Gorman, Executive Director for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said, “Navajo voters in San Juan County deserve and have the right, in accordance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to elect candidates of their choice, which was obviously repressed by the county commission going on three decades.
“As a protected class of citizens, Navajos can increase their ability to elect candidates that make the majority in the county commission and school board, based on the 2010 U.S. census.”
According to Gorman, the plan he supports assures that Navajo voters can elect two candidates of choice for the three county commissioners and three candidates of choice for the five school board members.
The school voting districts follow precinct lines and, with few exceptions, follow the boundary lines of the district high schools.
The current school voting districts include two districts with a clear Anglo majority and two districts with a clear Native American majority. The fifth district has a Native American majority but has always elected an Anglo board member.
In another matter related to Native American Voting Rights, Gorman is expressing concerns about the mail-in ballots for the 2014 primary and general elections.
Gorman said, “The mail-in ballots disparately impacted Navajo voters in San Juan County.”
San Juan County initiated the first election with mail-only ballots in November, 2014. Voter turnout in 2014 was similar to the prior midterm election in 2010, with a small decrease.
County officials expressed satisfaction that the election went well, culminating more than one year of effort to notify and train voters on the changes.
Gorman said there were several issues of concern with the mail-in ballots, including the differences in postal date stamping of the completed ballots, and the fear that voters may have considered the ballots to be junk mail.
Language challenges are also a concern. Gorman said the county has a responsibility to provide Navajo language assistance to Navajo voters during county elections. He said the 2014 San Juan County ballots had several technical amendments to the Utah constitution, which Navajos had difficulty translating from English to Navajo.
An additional concern is for voters who show up at the polling places on Election Day and may not be able to vote or get an official postmarked ballot in the mail. According to Gorman, doing away with the mail-in ballot will eliminate the vast confusion with U.S. mail system.
Editors note: San Juan Record Editor Bill Boyle is a member of the San Juan School Board.