Suit over vote-by-mail procedures in San Juan County is headed to trial

After recent rulings by a federal judge, a lawsuit that alleges San Juan County does not provide effective language assistance and equal voting opportunities to Navajos will go to trial.

The Navajo Human Rights Commission and seven members of the Navajo Nation filed suit in February 2016 claiming San Juan County had violated the federal Voting Rights Act by closing polling places ahead of the 2014 election and moving toward a mail-only voting system, hindering access to the ballot box.

The defendants — San Juan County, Clerk John David Nielson, and county Commissioners Phil Lyman, Bruce Adams and Rebecca Benally — filed a counterclaim against the plaintiffs, alleging the suit is based on fabricated claims and seeking a declaration that the voting procedures comply with the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

In a pair of rulings last week, U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish threw out the defendants’ counterclaims and dismissed some claims by the Navajo Human Rights Commission and Navajo Nation members.

Parrish ruled claims regarding voting procedures in 2014 that the county has abandoned are moot but said claims regarding the legality of 2016 procedures can go to trial. A date has not been set.

In their lawsuit, the commission and the members say postal service is unreliable and limited in rural areas of San Juan County, where many Navajo voters live. They said residents often lack access to reliable transportation and face poor road conditions but the only way to vote in the 2014 election was to go to the clerk’s office in Monticello, which is not on the reservation.

The counterclaim said the mail-in-ballot process allows elderly residents who have no means of transportation to vote from their homes. It also said San Juan County adopted additional procedures for 2016 and future elections that included four in-person voting locations, three of them within the reservation, and Navajo language ballots in audio form at all four locations and on the county’s website.