Let’s start with something you probably already know: Utah is predominantly Mormon.
So imagine the reaction if the state’s legislative districts were drawn so that two-thirds of the Legislature would not be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On top of that, suppose the laws the Legislature passed consistently discriminated against the LDS majority. But because of this blatant gerrymandering, even if those Mormons turned their outrage into votes, there would be no way for them to ever crack through the institutional disenfranchisement.
There would be justifiable outrage, indignation, lawsuits. It would go against everything we were ever taught about representative democracy, let alone fairness.
It might seem unimaginable that this sort of thing could happen, but, for decades, it is precisely the system that has been forced upon members of the Navajo Nation living in southeastern Utah’s San Juan County — although, thanks to a federal court, we might finally be seeing some change.
While Navajos make up half the population of San Juan County, they never have been able to elect more than one representative to the three-member County Commission.
That’s because the commission boundaries were drawn in such a way as to pack as many Navajo voters as possible into one district, then split the rest of the population among the other two. As a result, you saw one district where nearly 93 percent of voters were Navajos, while the other two had about 30 percent Navajos.
“Pack ’em and crack ’em” is the old rule of thumb when it comes to gerrymandering political boundaries.
In 2016, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby struck down those boundaries, ruling they amounted to race-based gerrymandering and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
He directed the county to redraw them fairly, but the county’s attempts were deemed inadequate, so Shelby adopted boundaries formed by a scholar. Barring intervention from a federal appeals court, voters will choose a new commission based on those new districts this November.
As my Salt Lake Tribune colleague Courtney Tanner reported over the weekend, white Republicans in San Juan County are upset at the potential change.
Current Commissioner Phil Lyman has alleged previously that Shelby’s ruling wasn’t about fair representation for the majority Navajo population.
“It’s intended to hurt Blanding, and it’s aimed at me,” said the commissioner. (Lyman was previously tried before Shelby for leading an illegal ATV ride to protest closures in Recapture Canyon.)
The county has appealed Shelby’s ruling and asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency order to block the new districts — a request that the court denied last month.
None of this should come as a surprise. As has been the case throughout history, those who have enjoyed disproportionate power over an underprivileged and disenfranchised population are not happy with the change.
Mark Maryboy knows the county’s troubling racial history well.
Maryboy grew up in San Juan County and, in the 1980s, became the first Navajo to be elected to the County Commission after President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department sued to do away with the racially discriminatory commission structure.
“I’ve seen it all my life,” Maryboy said. “The lowest form of life in the county, in [many San Juan residents’] opinion, is Native Americans — Navajos and Utes. … In their opinion, they don’t deserve to hold any important office. They believe that somehow Native Americans or minority populations don’t have the intelligence to be responsible and be in charge.”
As a commissioner, he said, he clashed again and again with the two white commission members over road funding, education dollars, public safety money, libraries and recreation facilities.
“The thing for them to do is to keep the Native Americans down as much as possible,” said Maryboy, who was a plaintiff in the redistricting lawsuit. “Beat them to the ground, keep them down there, don’t let them get control. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with.”
The Navajos’ fight for equal treatment is one that has been waged for decades, and the wins have almost always come in the federal courts. Every inch of progress has come against stiff resistance from the entrenched white power structure.
There have been at least seven major lawsuits filed by the Navajos against the county over equal educational opportunities, fair treatment in the justice process, access to the ballot box, and their rightful share of oil and gas royalties.
This latest court win could be a game-changer, though. If Navajos turn out to vote in November, they could, for the first time since statehood, shape their own destiny through a legislative process, rather than a judicial one.
And while that is disconcerting to many San Juan County old-timers, who have benefited from a system that disenfranchised half the county’s population, it would be a monumental victory for fairness and democracy.