San Juan County • At the end of a labyrinth of red dirt roads and surrounded by the rusty cliffs of nearby mesas, Marthleen and Shuan Stephenson live on an isolated desert homestead on the sprawling Navajo Nation.
Until last month, you couldn’t find their home using a traditional address. Instead, the directions went like this: “Turn off U.S. Highway 191 between mile markers 1 and 2. It’s a blue house with a tan roof.”
The couple felt like they were living in the dark, separated from modern times.
“Out there, it’s city streets, apartments and house numbers,” he said.
“But we don’t have anything out here,” she added.
Like the Stephensons’, most homes on the Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah lack street addresses. That means packages must be shipped to businesses or relatives who live in town, many miles away. Most on the reservation get their regular mail at post office boxes, which are sometimes located in Arizona. Emergency responders, given vague home locations, are often delayed.
But it is the impact on voting that has many indigenous rights advocates deeply concerned.
“In Indian Country, you don’t have a 123 Elm Street address,” said James Tucker, a pro bono voting rights counsel for the Native American Rights Fund.
“It limits your gateway to even be able to register to vote, to putting your foot through the door to participate from the get-go.”
County by county, election administrators must know exactly where voters live to assign accurate precincts, which then determine which ballot a voter receives, which offices she votes for and at which polling location she casts a ballot. In Utah and many other largely rural states, residents can register to vote by describing their approximate location on registration forms, or even draw a rudimentary map, which is allowed by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
But in states with strict voter identification laws, officials typically require a traditional address. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court just weeks before the midterm elections declined to block a North Dakota law requiring IDs with street addresses. P.O. boxes would not suffice, the court ruled, sending local tribes and activists into a frenzy trying to meet the new standard.
Now voting rights advocates are searching for ways to assign addresses to rural, indigenous communities ahead of the 2020 general election, knowing that it may be only a matter of time before county and state governments crack down on non-traditional addresses on reservations.
For Navajo residents of southeastern Utah, a new addressing system developed with the assistance of Google might help.
The Navajo Nation has 50,000 unaddressed homes and businesses, creating complications for hundreds of thousands of people.
The mostly desert-covered reservation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, encompasses more than 27,000 square miles. It will take an unknowable number of years to assign addresses throughout the reservation, said M.C. Baldwin, the rural addressing coordinator at the Navajo Nation Addressing Authority, the tribal office tasked with identifying and addressing homes and businesses there.
Limited by a three-person staff, massive swaths of land, a lack of broadband access and limited funding, his office has set addresses for fewer than 1,000 buildings on the reservation. The obstacles include not just identifying buildings but also jumping over bureaucratic hurdles, such as naming roads through official resolutions and dealing with the local politics of 110 different chapter houses — the governing boards that make up the Navajo Nation.
“There’s a lot of work that we have to do before we even get to the point where we can install the first sign,” said Baldwin, who often goes out alone putting up new street posts and hanging numbers on homes.
When organizers for the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Rural Utah Project set out to register 1,600 new voters from the Navajo Nation in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, staff soon realized what they were up against: One-fifth of Navajo voters in the county were filed in the wrong precinct, which meant they sometimes voted in the wrong school board races. At least 70% of Navajo voters in the county, the project found, were filed under P.O. boxes, while the rest were filed using vague descriptions of their home locations.
For decades, Navajo residents in San Juan County, Utah, have faced barriers to the ballot. The issue came to a head last year when a federal judge ruled the county’s school district and county commission seats were unconstitutionally drawn to limit Native American representation. While Native Americans gained a 2-1 advantage on the county commission for the first time after November’s election, project staff knew their efforts to increase indigenous voting power were just beginning.
“We had to do something,” said Drew Cooper, the project’s deputy director. “I never really realized how socially valuable an address is. It’s something we totally take for granted. These people have literally never been afforded a place in San Juan County.”
After nonprofit officials approached Google, the company agreed to provide technical assistance and advice to the Rural Utah Project’s addressing program, aiming for it to be a trailblazer for the rest of the Navajo Nation and other Native American territories. With new satellite images from Google in hand, project staff identified 2,500 addressable buildings and visited locations in person. Eventually, they assigned each home and business what’s known as a plus code — shortened longitude and latitude coordinates that can be used as a home address.
Now, for example, the Recapture Lodge, a local hotel, is 7CMR+2M Bluff, UT.
Project staff, several of whom are Navajo, began this month delivering and installing address signs (paid for by Google) to people across the reservation, while also re-registering residents along the way. They hope to provide addresses by this fall for three-quarters of Navajo who live in San Juan County.
“I feel like our work is a step forward,” said TJ Ellerbeck, the project’s executive director, “but it’s not like plus codes just magically fix everything. There are centuries of disenfranchisement and racism, and you can’t just fix that immediately.”
Baldwin, at the Navajo Nation, hopes other nonprofits “can carry that torch and help us” on tribal territory in Arizona and New Mexico, potentially using plus codes as a tool.
Google’s plans for helping other Native communities develop similar addresses are unclear. Google officials would not comment for this article.
Last year’s change to North Dakota’s voting law was not the first time that Native voting rights have been affected by non-traditional addresses.
In 2012, election officials in Apache County, Arizona, purged 500 Navajo voters from the registration system, claiming their addresses were “too obscure,” according to a field study by the Native American Rights Fund. Voters in that case used P.O. boxes and drew the location of their homes on applications. Apache County officials did not return Stateline’s requests for comment.
It is crucial that tribes act fast to make sure they’re ready for a potential crackdown on non-traditional addresses ahead of 2020, said OJ Semans, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and co-director of Four Directions, a South Dakota-based Native voting rights group.
“We know it’s going to happen,” Semans said. “I can guarantee you there’s going to be talks in other states to make this one of the voting requirements. They’re not going to give you a two-week notice. It’s going to happen just prior to the election.”
Four Directions worked with the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to create an emergency addressing system just a few days before the 2018 elections. After about 20 tribal members pointed to their residences on a map, Four Directions assigned new addresses that fit the state’s new standard and were officially notarized by the tribe. In other tribes in the state, leaders helped print new tribal IDs that met the state’s requirements.
Now, Four Directions has developed a new mobile application for tribes in North and South Dakota that will assign members a physical address.
Using GPS, the app records the longitude and latitude of a tribal member’s home. Users upload a photo of the property, along with some personal information and the name of the main road the voter takes to get home. The app can run without an internet connection, which is essential for the 41% of Native Americans living on reservations who lack broadband access. Once a voter gets to a place with an internet connection, the data is transferred to the cloud and Four Directions assigns the voter a new physical address using state standards.
These new addressing systems also could prove crucial during the 2020 census. Native Americans are the most undercounted population group in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the last census in 2010, 4.9% of American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations were not counted.
When it comes to drawing new congressional, legislative, county commission and school district lines, it’s important to know exactly where people live, said Michael Sharp, vice president of Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc., a firm that will assist New Mexico in drawing new district maps in the coming years.
“Accurate rural addressing equals accurate census counts,” he said, “not only just for population, but for federal funding. Those areas that are undercounted could potentially lose out on millions of dollars per year.”
Tribal members, however, are finding that the benefits of addresses go well beyond voting and the census.
Three sandstone-colored horses took their time getting off the long, barren, sandy road that approaches Dalene Redhorse’s single-story, cream-colored home on a cloudy late-September morning. As a field organizer for the Rural Utah Project, Redhorse was one of the first on the Navajo Nation to have her new address sign posted above her front door.
She’s relieved to be in the right voting precinct, to be sure. But the new address is so much more for her.
She’s thrilled to shop online and finally get packages delivered to her home. Technicians for electric, water and cable companies can more easily find her house. Similarly, instead of having to find her home using vague directions, emergency responders will have its exact location if she ever needs help.
It’s personal for Redhorse. Several years ago, her mother had a stroke. An ambulance couldn’t find exactly where she lived. The family, instead, had to drive her almost an hour north to a hospital in Blanding, before she was flown to New Mexico for treatment. In that time, her mother lost the ability to speak and most of her ability to move.
“That would make a change for a lot of people,” Redhorse said.
Local officials already are touting the new addressing system. Barbara Silversmith, principal of Bluff Elementary School, has had a difficult time trying to pinpoint the homes of her 82 students, almost all of whom are Native American. The school, which serves preschool through fifth grade, lies just across the San Juan River — the border of the Navajo Nation.
For the past three years, the school has participated in a state-sponsored home-visit program, in which teachers visit students and parents in the run-up to the school year, so they feel more comfortable and connected with the local school system. But when the program started, it was a challenge to locate some students living in a maze of spread-out homesteads.
On a hand-drawn map, Silversmith follows her finger along the weaving unnamed dirt roads of the reservation just south of the school, where she has penned in the homes of her students. When new students join the school, she asks them to point to their homes on the DIY map.
“Sometimes it was a long process to locate some of them,” said Silversmith, who is Navajo. “I can imagine now with the new number system, that would help tremendously. That would, of course, be an easier process and cut down on time.”
The home-visit program has been a success in improving the relationships between families and teachers, Silversmith said, and she expects it to get better with the new addresses.
Some on the reservation don’t see the benefits of the new addresses yet, Redhorse said. Worried about creditors or debt collectors, Redhorse said a handful of people have said to her, “You’re exposing us. You’re putting us out there. You’re letting people know where we live.”
It’s a misguided concern, she said. The new addresses are only for those who want it. “If you want to give it to creditors,” she said, “that’s up to you.” Educating her neighbors will certainly be important, she recognizes.
That skepticism isn’t stopping her, though. With new address signs in her truck, she’s excited to hit the dusty roads of southeastern Utah this fall, delivering a needed bit of infrastructure and a little sense of hope to her neighbors, exclaiming at each house, or hogan, “See, here’s your sign!”