Voting rights debate reignites in San Juan County with new commission, school board district proposals

Decades of legal battles have increased Indigenous representation in Utah’s only majority-minority county.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A San Juan County sign identifying an early voting location in Bluff, Utah, on Oct. 23, 2019.

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A debate over voting rights in San Juan County — the only county in Utah where the majority of the population is non-white — has reignited as elected officials prepare to adopt new school board and county commission districts following the 2020 Census.

At a public hearing held in Monticello on Tuesday night, Bill Cooper, a redistricting expert hired by the county to draw new maps, presented several options for both its five-member school board and the three-member commission districts. Map proposals were submitted by Cooper, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the San Juan County Clerk’s Office.

The most recent census showed that the Native American population increased slightly in the county over the last decade.

In 2017, San Juan County lost a lawsuit in federal court that was brought by the Navajo Nation under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ultimately led to the election of the county’s first ever majority-Native American commission a year later. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled then that maps the county adopted after the 2010 Census violated federal law because Native American voters were packed into a single district despite making up a plurality of voters in the county.

Cooper said he designed his maps to most closely align with those drawn by a court-appointed expert in 2017, while also accounting for new census data.

All of the proposed maps split Blanding, the most populous municipality in the county, into at least two districts, which the Blanding City Council has argued effectively leaves the city’s residents without representation at the county level.

San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, a Republican from Monticello, voiced that concern along with several members of the public on Tuesday.

“Blanding has come many times and said that they’re a community of interest and they need to be made whole,” Adams said.

But Cooper explained any option that would place Blanding into a single district would likely violate the court order and could lead to another lawsuit.

Jeff Begay, a resident of Navajo Mountain, spoke in favor of the proposed maps that maintain a greater than 65% Native American majority in two of the three commission districts. “We have been left out of on a lot of the benefits of this country,” he said, referring to Native Americans. “I’d like to see ... an equitable solution be picked.”

In an October letter to the editor of the San Juan Record, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, urged San Juan County Clerk Lyman Duncan, also a Republican, to disregard the court’s ruling and to dissolve the commission districts entirely.

“We are now undergoing another redistricting of our unconstitutional, illegal, politically motivated, race-packing, federally mandated Commission districts in San Juan County,” Lyman wrote, questioning the validity of the census results.

“We don’t gerrymander by race, but the Navajo Nation and the so-called U.S. Department of Justice does,” Lyman, who served on the county commission prior to 2019, added.

Doug Allen, a former mayor of Monticello, echoed Lyman’s remarks at Tuesday’s hearing. “This seems like court-ordered discrimination,” he said.

Adams and his fellow commissioners — Willie Greyeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, both Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation — will vote to approve the final district maps on Dec. 21.

Voting rights have long been a flashpoint in San Juan County, which overlaps with both the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation.

Most counties in Utah elect county commissioners through an at-large system where every voter has the opportunity to cast a vote for any commission candidate. But San Juan County has elected its commissioners by district since it signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice nearly 40 years ago, which led to the 1986 election of Mark Maryboy, the county’s first Native American commissioner.

Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this fall that the legal victories for Indigenous voters in San Juan County need to be vigilantly maintained.

“We’re in the same mode as ten years ago, 20 years ago, and that is to continue protecting the voting rights of Navajo,” he said.

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.