Racial-discrimination suit still pending

by Sonja Horoshko | February 1, 2014 2:59 pm

An amended lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation over voting districts in San Juan County, Utah, is still pending in U.S. District Court as different motions are filed and rulings made.

The nation had filed suit in January 2012 alleging that San Juan County, Utah, has drawn voting-district boundaries that “systematically disenfranchise Indians by denying them the right to vote.”

That original filing targeted the county commission districts only, but on Dec. 28, 2012, an amended filing added school districts to the alleged violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th and the 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Eric Swenson of Salt Lake City, explained to the Free Press that it takes time to prepare a case like this for court. “A lot of that mundane work is happening right now. It may be even still a year or more before that time in court arrives and a decision is rendered.”

Census numbers

The opportunity to re-apportion voting districts arises after U.S. census numbers are taken every 10 years. The census shows how many people live in each county and their ethnicity and density. In theory, using those numbers, boundaries are to be drawn that fairly represent the demographics in all districts.

San Juan County’s 2010 census numbers showed that Indians held a slim majority among both the total population and voting- age population.

The population of American Indians was found to be 7,693, or 52.17 percent of the total number of people (14,746) living in the county.

Of the total voting-age people, 50.33 percent (4,897) were American Indian while 46.20 percent were non-Hispanic white.

The last state

Utah became the last state to legally allow Indians the right to vote after the Supreme Court obliged the Utah legislature to repeal a long-standing state statute barring them from taking part in elections. That was in 1957.

Although practices such as not registering voters and/or providing access to ballot boxes stopped then, Indian disenfranchisement continued in San Juan County, according to the complaint filed against the county, because “the County impeded Navajos from becoming candidates for the Commission.”

As a result, further legal action was required, the lawsuit states, resulting in a 1972 court injunction against the county requiring that county “impediments” that kept Native Americans from becoming candidates for the county commission be eliminated.

However, according to the lawsuit, “the County diluted Indian voting strength through at-large election of County commissioners. That practice was challenged in 1983 through a lawsuit filed by the United States Justice Department” in which the county agreed that the process leading to the selection of it county commissioners failed to comply fully with the Voting Rights Act.

As a result, the U.S. District Court issued a permanent injunction requiring the county to adopt separate election districts for the commissioners and certify the oversight of the process by federal election examiners.

The violations at that time were similar to the charges described in the current suit, which argues that the commission districts are mal-apportioned in favor of the white vote.

Today, commission members are elected from three single-member districts that were created in 1984 after the court injunction.

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, the commissioner for District 1, said in a phone interview with the Free Press, “This was settled as a court decree previously. We have tried to do everything according to the court decree. We still don’t see a way to [reconfigure] the districts.”

But the complaint alleges that the populations are manipulated to assure Anglo control of two of the three districts.

“Two Commission election districts have inordinately large populations of whites,” it states. “Commissioners elected to represent these districts have always been white. The third Commission election district has an inordinately large population of Indians, a condition known as ‘packing’, and the commissioner elected to represent this district has always been an Indian. The population of Indians in the County is sufficiently large and geographically compact to require two or more single-member Commission districts with majority voting-age Indian populations.”

The complaint further charges that on Nov. 14, 2011, the county commissioners discussed the situation at one of their meetings. Navajo representatives were present and stated that District 3 needed to be modified so Indian voters would no longer be packed into a single district. They offered information and technical assistance, the suit says.

The representatives left that meeting after being told that no decision would be made that day regarding reapportionment; however, the suit charges, minutes show that the board later voted to reapportion the districts. They made adjustments to Districts One and Two, the white-majority districts, but left District 3 alone. The decision was supported by the two white commissioners, Adams and Phil Lyman, and opposed by the Navajo commissioner, Kenneth Maryboy.

“The foregoing acts and omissions of the County constitute intentional racial discrimination. . .,” the lawsuit states.

The suit seeks an order that San Juan County to submit a remedial plan to reapportion the commission and school-board districts and asks the court to continue monitoring and enforcing the county’s compliance with the remedial plan. It also seeks attorneys’ costs.

‘Racially polarized’

The picture drawn by the suit is one of a divided county in which Indians vote for Indians and whites for whites.

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