The controversial Proposition 10 ballot measure in the San Juan County special election was opposed by a slight majority with about one out of five ballots yet to be counted as of Wednesday morning.

Early results showed the question falling short 51.8% to 48.1% — with 1,735 “no” votes and 1,614 “yes” votes. An estimated 700 ballots or so remained to be counted.

The final tally may not be available until week’s end, according to the San Juan County Clerk’s Office, which did not release any vote totals until after 11 p.m. Tuesday.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Election workers in Monticello, Utah, sort ballots cast in the San Juan County special election on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Passage of the proposition would authorize a study committee of county residents to recommend possible changes to San Juan County’s form of government, which is currently a three-member County Commission.

Critics of the move saw it is as an attempt to undermine the county’s first majority-Navajo commission. Proponents of the measure said it was simply a way to spread out power and provide more representation to different communities of interest in the sprawling county, Utah’s largest geographically.

The petition drive that initiated the special election was sponsored by Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman and Monticello Mayor Tim Young along with three other residents from across the county, including members of the Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo tribes.

Lyman suggested in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that Proposition 10 was likely to fail.

“However," he added, “if the people vote to accept the current districts, at least we have heard the voice of the people.”

About 40% of registered voters in the county voted by mail or at early voting locations before Election Day, according to the clerk’s office.

Another 40% voted on Election Day in Monticello or in one of three polling locations on the Navajo Nation that were opened in accordance with a 2018 settlement to a voting rights lawsuit brought against the county by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

The 21% of votes that remain uncounted were mostly mail-in ballots that arrived this week or were dropped off at polling locations Tuesday on the Navajo Nation. The preliminary numbers also did not include provisional ballots and votes cast in Navajo Mountain, a 3½-hour drive from Monticello that arrived after midnight.

The special election came under scrutiny in late October when the ACLU noted multiple irregularities surrounding early voting, including the distribution of an opinion piece written by Lyman inside polling places.

San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson acknowledged to The Tribune that he had made the op-ed available and placed it alongside official election materials in an attempt to educate voters about Proposition 10. The ACLU suggested the act could amount to electioneering, which is illegal under Utah law.

On Sunday, about 100 people attended a rally against Proposition 10 at the Navajo Nation’s Mexican Water Chapter House in southern San Juan County, which featured hours of speeches.

The two Democratic commissioners, Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, who are both members of the Navajo Nation, spoke against the proposition at the event.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sign outside the polls in Montezuma Creek for the San Juan County special election on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.

On Tuesday, The Tribune spoke with over a dozen voters in Montezuma Creek on the Navajo Nation, many of whom reported they’d heard about the special election through get-out-the-vote efforts from current or former Navajo tribal officials. Nez ran radio ads against Proposition 10 along with former Presidents Joe Shirley Jr. and Peterson Zah, and several voters said that the campaign spurred them to cast ballots.

Lynn Stevens, a former commissioner, expressed concerns at a public meeting in Blanding last month that any attempts to alter the form of government could lead to another voting rights lawsuit, something voting rights attorneys have also suggested.

In his email to the newspaper Wednesday, Lyman said, “I still believe the current districts are gerrymandered according to the stated objectives of those who brought the [2012 voting rights] lawsuit, and that Blanding has been denied representation as a community of interest." He was referring to the court-ordered redistricting in 2017 that split Blanding into two commission districts and divided its outskirts into a third.

In local council races, early results showed Ralph Brantley Murray and James Sayers leading in the Bluff Town Council election. For Monticello City Council, Nathan Chamberlain, Ronald Skinner and Kim Henderson all carried sizable leads.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.