When the results of the 2010 census for San Juan County landed on Leonard Gorman’s desk, it was clear change was coming.
The data showed Native American residents outnumbered white residents in the southeastern Utah county, but two of the three County Commission voting districts — which had been drawn decades earlier under information from the 1980s — were majority white.
“My office initially assessed the then-voting districts,” said Gorman, who is executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. “We found that they were not appropriately fostered by the county.”
Gorman set up a meeting with county commissioners in 2011 and argued, unsuccessfully at first, that the districts needed to be updated to reflect the new census information.
The meeting set off a chain of events that led to a yearslong lawsuit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. A federal judge eventually agreed with Gorman’s assessment. The three commission districts were redrawn by a court-appointed special master, resulting in two districts with Native American majorities. The county elected its first majority-Navajo leadership in 2018.
For those like Gorman, who consider the redistricting case to be a voting rights victory for Native American residents in San Juan County, the stakes for getting as complete a count as possible during the 2020 census are high. If significant changes occur in the tallied population or racial composition of the voting districts, they may need to be redrawn again, possibly returning the voting edge to the white population that is typically counted more accurately than communities of color.
Federal funding and treaty obligations
A lack of street addresses on parts of the Navajo Nation, limited internet access and a host of other factors pose considerable difficulties for the Census Bureau’s constitutionally mandated mission to count every person in America every 10 years.
And with a pandemic added to the mix, all of those issues could be amplified.
“The timing of the health crisis could not have been worse,” census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal said in a recent interview with The Nation. “I was already worried that the 2020 census could be sailing into a perfect storm with headwinds largely out of the Census Bureau’s control. And then the census got hit by a tsunami.”
This could be particularly true for Native Americans living on reservations. The government estimates they were the most undercounted racial/ethnic group in the country in 2012, with 4.9% — or almost 30,000 individuals — excluded from the official tally.
In addition to impacts on election districting, an undercount can reduce the federal funding that flows to schools, hospitals, roads and other public works.
“Achieving a fair and accurate count ultimately is to ensure adequate or representative political power and access to financial resources and money,” Jason Jurjevich, associate professor of practice at the University of Arizona’s School of Geography and Development, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So if there is a significant undercount for a particular community, they’re disenfranchised with respect to political power and money.”
According to an analysis by George Washington University, Utah lost out on $533 in federal funds for every person missed in the 2010 census, and those numbers can add up quickly in rural communities.
Census tallies are also used to calculate the federal funding that goes to Native American nations. “The census is a cornerstone of assuring that all indigenous peoples are counted,” Gorman explained, “and that the federal government has an accurate number to fulfill its [treaty] commitment by providing health [care], education, roads — in our case on the Navajo Nation.
“For every Navajo person that doesn’t get counted," he added, “that person is not assured the commitment that the U.S. government made.”
Hard-to-count populations for the census include “individuals of color, non-English speakers, rural residents … [and] low-income persons,” Jurjevich wrote in a recent paper. And in rural San Juan County, which has the lowest per capita income in Utah and where a sizable percentage of the mostly older Navajo Nation population does not speak English, many residents fall into one or more of those categories.
In addition, much of the county, from its majority-white northern half to the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute lands in the south, receives its mail at post office boxes — or lacks traditional street addresses altogether. Most areas without home mail delivery are placed in the Census Bureau’s “update/leave” category that includes less than 5% of the U.S. population.
“The operation [of update/leave] is different than the household self-response,” Jurjevich said. “It requires census enumerators to do a lot of on-the-ground work in collaboration with local community partners.”
Enumerators, which are often locals hired by the Census Bureau to help connect with hard-to-count populations, will individually go to residences to both “update” the addresses in the area assigned and to “leave” a packet at each house with information for filling out a self-response.
The process is designed to counter the factors that make some populations harder to count than others. “The best method to get census information [on the Navajo Nation]," Gorman said, “is really going house to house with individuals that understand the community, that are part of the community, that community people recognize.”
Update/leave visits were scheduled to wrap up April 17, but that critical piece of the census process has been pushed back due to the pandemic. Last month, the Census Bureau proposed a new deadline of July 9.
A wide range of response rates
Nearly 60% of Utahns had responded to the census questionnaire as of Friday, putting Utah in seventh among U.S. states for response rates. The majority of respondents the online system developed for the current census.
In San Juan County, however, only 17.5% of residents had responded, and the difference between the standard and update/leave areas was stark. The county’s largest town, Blanding, which has home mail delivery, had a 55% self-response rate. The towns Monticello and Bluff, on the other hand, which use post office boxes, both had response rates of under 8%.
Monticello City Manager Doug Wright said he didn’t know if the same problem had occurred in his town, but he added he was concerned the pandemic could negatively impact the census count. “We need people to participate in the census,” he said. “It’s important for government entities — school district as well as local, county, municipal and others — to get the proper funding formulas put in place.”
Even the low response results in San Juan County’s incorporated towns were far ahead of the Navajo Nation as a whole, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus and largely lacks home mail delivery. The reservation had a self-response rate of just 0.5% as of Friday.
According to the latest American Community Survey from San Juan County, which was completed in 2018, 55% of Native American residents reported not having a computer. Gorman said the lack of internet access on the Navajo Nation is likely impacting those numbers.
“You'll find that in metropolitan areas there are much, much higher response rates,” Gorman said, “because those metropolitan areas probably have the better backbone of technology than on the Navajo Nation.”
“Technology is very, very efficient if you have the capability to access it and know how to run it,” he added. “That's a serious challenge on the Navajo Nation.”
With the Navajo Nation continuing to enforce nightly and weekend curfews as well as stay-at-home orders, it’s difficult to say to what extent the coronavirus will impact the census in San Juan County. But Bill Cooper, an attorney who testified in Navajo Nation’s redistricting lawsuit against San Juan County, said even a relatively small undercount could have big implications for future voting rights cases across Indian Country.
“To make a case in federal court that you can draw a majority Indian district, you have to show that it is over 50% Native American voting age,” Cooper said. “That’s why it’s important to get an accurate count. Sometimes it’s very easy to draw districts when it’s over 50%, but other times it’s right on the edge. So if the count’s not accurate, you might not be able to prevail in court because you’re a little short of actually having a 50%-plus-one district.”
U.S. residents can fill out the 2020 census online at www.2020census.gov, by phone at 844-330-2020 or by mail.
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 by clicking here.