New filing in federal court asserts San Juan County failed to make changes
by Bill Boyle
On June 12, a motion was filed asking Federal Judge Robert Shelby to reopen the original voting rights case because of allegations that San Juan County and County Clerk John David Nielson had failed to implement Shelby’s orders regarding the new voting districts.
The motion asked that Judge Shelby stop the June 26 primary election from taking place, in addition to implementing a host of changes to the initial ruling.
The primary election moved ahead according to schedule and Shelby ordered that the county and Nielson appear in court on July 2 to address the allegations.
When asked for comment, San Juan County officials said that they have not been served with notice of the latest filings and are unaware of their contents.
Employees of the San Juan County Clerk’s office were working overtime in preparation for the June 26 election.
The June 26 election included both Republican and Democratic primaries, a run-off election to pare candidates in two school board races, and the first municipal election in Bluff since the community voted in incorporate in November, 2017.
The filing suggests that the county did not implement the new voting districts and lists 25 cases of citizens who may have been assigned to the wrong voting precinct.
It suggests that up to 2,000 voters may have been assigned to the wrong voting precincts.
On June 22, attorneys for San Juan County filed a response to the motion in which they defended the work of the Clerk’s office to implement the new voting districts.
The response states, “The County has acted conscientiously and diligently to follow the Court’s Order and Judgment.”
County officials state that they have worked to correctly assign voters to the new precinct boundaries.
Attorneys for the county said that a statement from a voting expert was incorrect since the expert had used an outdated version of the voting maps.
Officials state that the voter registration forms list a physical address for the voter residence, but these addresses can be difficult to map because of a lack of street addresses in many areas of the county.
For instance, an address may state that the voter lives “14 miles northeast of the Bluff post office on County Road 551.”
County officials state that the addresses have been plotted on maps, with overlays used to assign voters to a precinct. They add that the process can be difficult to manage.
The response states, “San Juan County affirmatively states that it has used a meaningful and reliable system for assigning voters to new districts and precincts, and that while not immune from error, the County Clerk’s office has been diligent in promptly making corrections.”
County officials state that they have received around 800 voter registration filings in recent months. Since the majority of these voters had already been registered to vote, county officials carefully matched the new filings with the addresses listed in the previous voter registration forms.
They add that there are a “couple of hundred” new registrations.
The Clerk’s office states that approximately 4,000 ballots were maild for the June 26 election and they anticipate higher than 50 percent voter participation.
There were a number of variables in the June 26 election, including a Republican primary that included only registered Republicans, an open Democratic primary in one Commission district, two non-partisan school board races, and the municipal election in Bluff.
In a note to the filing, attorneys for San Juan County suggest that the timing of the filing was political in nature and was an attempt to stop the primary election and assist specific candidates for office.
The latest filings were made by six San Juan County residents through attorneys Steve Boos, Eric Swenson, and Maya Kane. The attorneys were removed as legal counsel for the Navajo Nation in the case in early 2018, soon after the final orders were made by Judge Shelby. They are now representing the six local residents as individuals rather than through the Navajo Nation.
A statement from the Utah Navajo Commission about the removal of the attorneys suggests that the decision may have been made as a cost-saving measure. Another filing mentions the “deterioration of the working relationship” between the legal counsel and Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch.