The Navajo Nation and San Juan County, Utah, have reached a settlement in a 2016 lawsuit regarding access to voting for the county’s Navajo residents.
The suit, filed by the Navajo Human Rights Commission and several individuals, targeted the county clerk and county commissioners.
It charged that when the county adopted a primarily-mail voting system, it made it challenging for some Navajos to vote.
Under the agreement, filed Feb. 20 in U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, Central Division, the county agreed to provide three polling places on the Navajo Nation for primary and general elections. It is also to have three satellite offices on the reservation at least 28 days before each election and to provide a Navajo interpreter for in-person voting assistance.
However, Commissioner Bruce Adams told the Free Press that the settlement merely codifies what the county was already doing voluntarily.
He said the county already had polling places on the reservation. “We had three polling places and we had interpreters in the Navajo language,” he said. “And we had places where they could come and register prior to the election. We had that all along.
“We simply negotiated back to what San Juan County was doing voluntarily, but now it will be court-ordered. There was nothing new that came out of it.”
Both parties agreed to pay their own attorneys’ fees, Adams said.
Their joint motions ask U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish to dismiss the suit, but request the court keep jurisdiction, giving it the ability to enforce the agreement.
The lawsuit claimed that the county did not provide effective language assistance to the region’s many Navajospeaking voters. According to the 2016 U.S. Census, 4,312 of the 10,275 adult San Juan County residents speak a language other than English or Spanish. According to the Navajo Human Rights Commission, 18 percent of the Navajo-speaking residents speak English “less than very well.”
The suit also argued that the county’s 2014 decision to offer mail-in ballots and in-person voting at only one place located in a majority-white section of the county resulted in unequal voting opportunities for Navajo voters. The county closed all voting locations around the Navajo Nation at that time, according to the NNHRC statement issued in November 2016.
But during the litigation, three polling places were reopened, at Navajo Mountain, Oljeto, and Montezuma Creek. The goal was to get all eight polling places reopened, the statement said.
The county agreed to implement various measures aimed at providing meaningful language assistance and to create equal opportunities for the Navajo voters. The measures will begin in 2018. Three polling places will be maintained on the reservation for Election Day voting in person, each provided with Navajo language interpreters.
“Adding early, in-person voting and language assistance at locations inside the Navajo Nation where vehicle transportation and mail-delivery is often slow and unreliable will give San Juan County residents improved access to the ballot box,” said John Meija, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, the group that represented the Navajo commission in the suit. San Juan County Navajo residents live north of the Arizona border in the southern half of the county. Chapter houses can be long distances from polling places and post offices. Navajo Mountain is a five-hour drive from the county seat in Monticello. Nearly 50 percent of Navajo people on the reservation in the county do not own or have access to a second vehicle, and 10 percent have none at all.
While the mail-in system works well in most communities, the reservation does not have door-to-door mail delivery. All mail goes to boxes at the local post offices. The drive to the post offices can be an hour or more, and mail is often not picked up for weeks at a time.
At stake in the primary and general election in 2018 are three county commissioner seats and five school-board positions. San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson told the Free Press that the elections are on schedule. The primary, which affects parties with multiple candidates, will be Tuesday, June 26. The general will be Tuesday, Nov. 6.
“We have not had an increase in questions about polling places yet, but we will be posting the locations and the schedules on our website,” Nielson said. “We’ll also be furnishing directions to the in-person Election Day polling locations. We’ll make some flyers and get the information into the newspapers, and on the radio.” Six weeks prior to an election, the clerk’s office will provide a Navajo liaison to help answer questions about the polling locations, hours of operation and voter registration.
In a statement, Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said, “Navajo Voting Rights is very important, especially in the counties on the Navajo Nation. The settlement with San Juan County is merely the bottom line which the county has committed to work with the Navajo people.”
In a related legal action, the U.S. District Court in Utah denied a motion filed by San Juan County to stay enforcement of a 2017 court order to adopt a final redistricting map with new boundaries for the commission and school-board districts. Nielson said the 2018 election will be held for all offices affected by the redistricting decisions.
“Bruce Adams won re-election in District 2 in the 2017 election,” Nielson said. “But the district he represented is no longer shaped as it was prior to these court decisions. So, as an example, he would have to run for election in District 2 again, in the new District 2 boundaries, if he wanted to continue being a county commissioner.”
Voting for other offices such as county attorney is county-wide, said Nielson. “They are not affected by the redistricting.”