San Juan County expands in-person voting on the Navajo Nation during the pandemic

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Red Mesa resident Norman Lee Joe poses while waiting in line to vote early in San Juan County on Oct. 8, 2020.

This research and reporting in this article was assisted by a grant through the Renewing Democracy initiative of Solutions Journalism Network.

Red Mesa • When the Utah Legislature changed state election rules to favor by-mail and drive-thru voting for June’s primary in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, it listed a single exception.

San Juan County, which had the highest per capita rate of coronavirus cases in the state throughout the summer, would continue holding in-person early voting on and near the Navajo Nation. The reason: A universal mail-in system would have violated a 2018 voting rights settlement between the county and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, which required the county to keep certain in-person services open.

In a pandemic year, when more people are expected to vote by mail than ever before in the United States, the five states that conducted the vast majority of their elections by mail before 2020 — Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington — are being looked to as models. Election analysts have found that universal vote-by-mail systems, where every registered voter automatically receives a mail-in ballot, increase overall voter turnout by an average of 2%.

By-mail elections allow voters to research ballot questions at home while saving time on travel to polling places, where lines can be an issue in some areas. And contrary to claims repeatedly made by President Donald Trump that by-mail elections benefit Democrats, a May paper published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found voting by mail benefits both major political parties equally.

But the system has drawbacks in rural areas, including on Native American reservations where sluggish mail service and little internet access as well as language and transportation barriers can counter the benefits of an all vote-by-mail system. Over the past three years, San Juan County has, in conversation with civil rights groups, developed a hybrid mail-in and in-person voting system that attempts to overcome those obstacles for Navajo Nation voters and has already served as a model for other areas expanding access in vote-by-mail elections.

Voting rights settlement

When San Juan County, which has a plurality of Native American residents, attempted to switch to a universal vote-by-mail system in 2014 along with many other rural Utah counties, it was sued under the Voting Rights Act by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission with support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs mark an early voting day at the Red Mesa Chapter House on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County on Oct. 8, 2020.

Many residents of the Navajo Nation, the plaintiffs argued, lack home U.S. Postal Service delivery and may have to drive hours to get to a post office box. In addition, the lawsuit noted “Navajo is a traditionally unwritten language,” and the mail-only system failed to “provide adequate oral assistance to limited English-proficient Native American voters.”

San Juan County filed counterclaims but eventually settled with the plaintiffs in 2018, agreeing to a multipronged approach.

Under the agreement, the county hosts in-person early voting and Election Day polling at several locations in the southern part of the county, and it advertises the voting schedule through bilingual radio ads, online posts and printed fliers. It also hires certified translators and election liaisons who serve as resources for Navajo Nation officials and residents.

San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson told The Salt Lake Tribune that every active voter in the county still receives a mail-in ballot before the election, but each envelope has information about in-person early voting and the phone numbers of the two liaisons.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Geri Hernandez, a certified Navajo interpreter working for San Juan County, holds out a bilingual "I voted" sticker at an early day at the Red Mesa Chapter House on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County on Oct. 8, 2020.

Elsie Dee, one of those liaisons, said that communication is key while working with Navajo Nation communities, and the process begins long before Election Day. She began attending meetings at tribal chapter houses months ago to provide updates about the county’s election plans and to answer Navajo Nation officials' questions.

“I pretty much give all of my reports in Navajo, our primary language," Dee said, “so people understand.”

In addition to the meetings, Dee posts information to Facebook and participates in radio announcements, trying to reach voters from as many angles as possible. “We just want them to have their voice be heard."

In-person early voting

So far, the hybrid in-person and mail-in system appears to have helped expand voting access. Turnout among active voters jumped to 74% in 2018, an increase of 10 percentage points from the previous midterm elections in 2014, when the county closed in-person polling places, prompting the lawsuit.

But 2020 presented its own challenges. How would San Juan County continue abiding by the terms of the settlement and also keep people safe during the pandemic?

Nielson said one solution the county came up with for the general election was to add more in-person early-voting days and locations than in years past.

“The idea," Nielson said, “was to try and increase early-voting opportunities to hopefully get more people out to vote so that less people show up on Election Day, creating less lines.”

Early voting opened Oct. 5 and will continue every weekday through Oct. 30 rotating through seven locations throughout the county, six of which are on the Navajo Nation. And Nielson said that despite possible pandemic concerns among the electorate, more people have shown up at the early-voting sites than past elections.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elsie Dee, an election liaison for San Juan County, at an early voting event in Red Mesa on Oct. 8, 2020.

“The first day was really hectic,” said Dee, who attends each of the events. “It was a full house of early voters.”

“Four hours is nothing; you’re pretty much busy all the way through,” said Carl Holiday, San Juan County’s other election liaison. “We are getting a lot more people [than other years]. We’ve been averaging maybe 20 people a day,” a significant number for the sparsely populated areas where early voting is taking place.

Floor signs are set up at each of the sites, indicating social distance guidelines and a one-way flow of traffic in one entrance and out a separate exit. Voting booths are wiped down between each use. Masks, which are required, and hand sanitizer are available throughout the facility.

“The majority of people that come in are the elderlies,” Dee said, noting that younger people, who tend to be more comfortable with English, are more likely voting by mail.

On a recent early-voting day at the Red Mesa Chapter House in southern San Juan County, the line stretched out the door as voters stayed socially distant and waited 45 minutes for their turn to use one of the three voting booths.

Geri Hernandez, a certified Navajo interpreter who is available to help translate ballot questions at the early-voting sites, said it can take 15 minutes to go through a ballot with a Navajo-speaking voter and a witness, meaning the lines can move slowly and an Election Day rush could be overwhelming.

“The pandemic has really been difficult," Hernandez said, “especially with those hard of hearing through the masks."

Voter registration drives

Research by the National Congress of American Indians found that the turnout rate for Native American voters is between one and 10 percentage points lower than other racial groups in the United States, and voter registration rates are lower for Native Americans compared to the nationwide average. Thousands of Navajo Nation voters live in remote homesites that lack electricity and internet access, and disseminating voting information can be a challenge in itself.

To counter that trend, multiple groups have been organizing voter registration drives over the past several months, including the Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez’s office, which has been registering voters at its drive-thru coronavirus relief events.

“We try to make the [events] a one-stop shop,” said Sean Sells, a member of Nez’s staff who attended a recent food distribution event in Aneth, Utah, where employees of the humanitarian organizations World Central Kitchen and Community Organized Relief Effort distributed food boxes and hygiene kits funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to hundreds of cars. Meanwhile, census workers helped attendees complete the 2020 census online and other volunteers answered voting questions.

Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish, who handed out food boxes in Aneth, said she’s been leading voter registration pushes at similar events in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah over the past couple of months.

“I try to arrive early and go through the line of cars to ask if they need a voter registration form to mail in,” she said. “If they want me to register them to vote, then I have an iPad ready.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish distributes food boxes in Aneth, Utah, on Oct. 9, 2020.

Parrish said that although people she has registered are concerned about the pandemic, she also sees lots of enthusiasm for voting in the presidential election this year.

“[Voter registration] is definitely my favorite thing to do right now,” she added. “I still have a little tan line on my forehead [from wearing a pageant crown to outdoor events].”

Tara Benally, a field organizer for the Rural Utah Project and the Rural Arizona Project, began putting together similar registration drives on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona in March. Benally and her team dress in full personal protective equipment in drive-thru booths stationed at busy locations. They hand out Popsicles and voter registration forms to passing vehicles.

“It’s been a very successful process,” Benally said. “We’ve been able to do anywhere from 20 to 30, and sometimes we would get up to about 50 voter registrations [in a single day].” The program has registered 3,000 people since the spring.

Arizona voting rights settlements

Unlike San Juan County, the Arizona counties where Benally is focusing her work this year do not use universal vote-by-mail systems — voters need to either request a one-time mail-in ballot or they can ask to be put on a permanent mail-in ballot list — but Navajo Nation voters in both states face similar obstacles.

In 2018, the year San Juan County agreed to the voting rights settlement, Navajo Nation attorneys filed suit against three northern Arizona counties that overlap with the reservation, arguing a lack of early-polling places and language assistance violated the Voting Rights Act and 14th Amendment.

The counties — Apache, Navajo and Coconino — settled last year, adopting an agreement that largely mirrors steps already taken in San Juan County. One additional provision not included in the San Juan plan is that Arizona counties are required to develop proactive voter registration plans in consultation with the Navajo Nation.

Benally said that the two weeks of in-person early voting and language assistance, which are now required, are critical to expanding voter participation in an area where it can take 10 days for the Postal Service to deliver a letter from a satellite post office to the county seat.

“We’re really encouraging people to vote in person,” Benally said, “only because the mailing system is not the greatest thing in the world here on the Navajo reservation. For many people, the post office can be anywhere from a half-hour to an hour or so away from home. So not having the transportation to get out there, hitchhiking out there, dealing with the weather — there are a lot of setbacks.”

Remaining barriers

But Benally acknowledges the efforts required under the settlements are only part of the solution. Driving to an early-voting location may be just as difficult as traveling to a post office box for some residents, and, in previous elections, Benally has helped organize volunteers to drive voters to the polls, an effort that isn’t feasible during a pandemic.

Additionally, many reservation households lack street addresses, which has led to voters being placed in the wrong precincts by San Juan County in past elections. The Rural Utah Project began a comprehensive addressing program last year to help remedy the issue using Plus Codes, an open-source addressing alternative developed by Google, and the effort is currently expanding to northern Arizona. The work was delayed by the pandemic, however, and many homes have not yet received their Plus Code signs.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evevia Nez, rural addressing technician for the Aneth Chapter of the Navajo Nation, speaks before a food distribution and voter registration event on Oct. 9, 2020.

The Aneth Chapter is the only Navajo Nation chapter in Utah that is working to assign a traditional street address for each of its residents. Chapter employees started by mapping 888 inhabited structures in the chapter boundaries several years ago and street signs have been installed on all roads that lead to four or more homes.

Nearly a third of the homes also received street address number signs, which can be used as an official address, but the majority of chapter residents are still using directional addresses that have historically been the norm, such as “eight miles north of Whitehorse High School.”

“I’ve been getting calls saying, ‘What is my street address?’” said Evevia Nez, rural addressing technician for the Aneth Chapter. “It’s one of the requirements for voter registration, so people ask.” For those who don’t yet have a street address, Nez tells them to continue using the directional addresses.

Nez said when the rural addressing project is complete, it will help prevent voting precinct errors associated with directional addresses as well as helping emergency medical services find homes quickly and effectively.

‘A good thing’

All of these efforts — information campaigns, voter registration drives, rural addressing, language assistance and early-voting opportunities — are beginning to counter historical barriers to voting in San Juan County.

Gilbert Dee, a member of the Navajo Nation who was waiting in line to cast a ballot in Red Mesa in early October, said he usually waits to vote on Election Day but thinks the early voting is a better option right now.

“Everybody should be responsible for themselves to make time for early voting with the way things are going in this year’s elections,” he said. “I could have voted by mail, but I just got word today that this early voting was happening, and it’s more convenient for me.”

Nielson, the San Juan County clerk, said that his office plans to continue with the in-person early-voting days in upcoming elections. “It’s been a good thing,” he said. “We plan to continue it. There’s no plan to stop or to do away with it once the settlement agreement is over [next year].”

But Nielson said the major benefit he sees to the program, in addition to expanding access, is repairing the mistrust among Navajo Nation voters after decades of voting rights lawsuits and investigations, several of which have targeted Nielson himself.

“Hopefully it builds trust and gives some confidence that the county wants to try and do the best possible job in ensuring everybody the ability to vote," he said, “and vote with the best information that they can get.”

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.