Navajo Nation applauds expected extension of San Juan voting rights deal

Agreement would require the Utah county to continue offering language assistance and early voting opportunities on the Navajo Nation into 2024.

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

A landmark voting rights settlement between San Juan County and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission will likely be extended into 2024.

Supporters say the deal will ensure access to Navajo language assistance during elections as well as expanded early voting opportunities for residents of Utah’s only majority-minority county, which overlaps with the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute nations.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called the original settlement, which was reached in 2018 and is set to expire next month, a “hard-fought victory that … increased voter participation in the recent elections.”

The agreement was formed after the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, seven members of the Navajo Nation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sued San Juan County in 2016 over its decision to move to an all vote-by-mail election system two years earlier. The plaintiffs argued mail-in voting disenfranchised Native Americans in the county since only a fraction of residents have home postal service and many members of the Navajo Nation require interpretive services for English language ballots.

[Read how San Juan County expanded in-person voting on the Navajo Nation during the pandemic.]

The San Juan County Clerk’s Office subsequently developed a hybrid mail-in and in-person voting system in accordance with the settlement. Every active voter in the county receives a mail-in ballot before each election, but the envelopes have information about in-person voting options on and near the reservation, which are staffed by certified Navajo interpreters and election liaisons. Voting information is also announced in the Navajo language on area radio stations.

In the lead-up to November’s election, San Juan County voluntarily expanded early voting sites beyond what was required under the terms of the settlement in an effort to reduce lines during the coronavirus pandemic. Both County Clerk John David Nielson and Nez characterized the effort as a success.

“Despite the challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nez said, “our Navajo people came out to vote in numbers that we have never seen before. … I commend the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission for advocating for the Navajo people and working to right the wrongs of the past and provide long-term voting protections for Navajo voters in San Juan County, Utah.”

Last week, over a dozen locally elected leaders, Navajo Nation Council delegates and voting rights advocates spoke in support of extending the settlement agreement during a San Juan County Commission meeting’s public comment period, which lasted over two hours.

Tara Benally, field director for the Rural Utah Project and a member of the Navajo Nation, thanked the county for “going above and beyond by opening early voting locations at the [Navajo Nation] chapter houses” last year, adding, “when we all work together, we can help advance one another.”

The County Commission voted to extend the settlement, and a federal court must now review and approve it.

The mail-in voting case was not the only voting rights lawsuit brought against San Juan County in recent years. In 2012, the county was sued by the Navajo Nation in a separate case, and a federal judge eventually determined the county had violated federal law in the way it had drawn its County Commission and school board districts. A 2018 special election was held under new districts drawn by a court-appointed special master, and San Juan elected its first ever majority Native American County Commission.

Districts will be redrawn once the results of last year’s federal census are available. Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, fears a possible undercount of Native American residents occurred during last year’s census, partly due to the pandemic, which could impact the way voting districts are redrawn.

“The very strong concern is that when the majority of the commission again becomes non-Native American,” he said, “this momentary understanding [over voting rights] — this momentary cooperation — that we’ve embarked upon will flee from us.”

But Gorman said the settlement’s extension is a move in the right direction, adding the court needs to continue to play an oversight role in the county. “It is fundamental that Navajo voting rights are protected and respected under the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” he said.

“There’s hope for all of the Navajo people across the Navajo Nation,” Gorman continued, “especially in San Juan County, Utah. What happened the past two years is important and it’s our responsibility to nurture it.”

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.