‘It’s hearsay’: Navajo Democrat responds after San Juan County kicks him off the special election ballot

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Navajo DineŽ BikeŽyah member Willie Grayeyes is asked to swear in before his testimony in opposition to HB136, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, at left, which muzzles city and local officials from speaking out on public-lands protections during the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Standing Committee at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.

They accused him of not being a Utah resident. They said he didn’t meet the qualifications to run for an open county seat. They asked him to “prove his eligibility” to continue his campaign. And they threatened him with criminal charges if he couldn’t.

Now, after a weekslong investigation, officials of Republican-controlled San Juan County have determined they have “clear and convincing evidence” to boot Democrat and Navajo Willie Grayeyes from the November ballot and void his voter registration.

It’s an extraordinary decision that is set to touch off yet another legal battle over voting rights in this southeastern Utah county whose politics have been turned upside down by a federal court’s intervention. Grayeyes, who won his party’s nomination for the commission race in March, has hired a law firm and intends to fight the county’s action.

“It’s hearsay,” he responded Friday. “They need to look further.”

The candidate came under the microscope in March after a white resident in Blanding, who lost her bid for the same seat at the county’s GOP convention, filed a complaint claiming that Grayeyes lives in Arizona. He then submitted to the county a satellite image of his house in the Navajo Mountain community on the reservation within Utah’s borders, an invitation to come visit, a record of his longtime voter registration and a copy of his birth certificate.

The state elections director, too, confirmed he’d cast ballots dating back at least 26 years. The county Democratic Party chairman vouched for his residency of at least 34.

San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson, who could not be reached for comment Friday, wrote in a letter to Grayeyes dated May 4 — but not released until this week — that it was not enough.

A sheriff’s deputy, he said, visited the property Grayeyes listed on his candidacy form. No one answered the door, and the dirt driveway did not appear to have “recent tire tracks” or footprints. Neighbors in the largely unpopulated and spread-out community, too, reported not knowing Grayeyes or suggested that he stays often in Tuba City, Ariz.

When questioned by police, Grayeyes’ sister, Rose Johnson, also apparently told detectives that her brother had moved out of state. And on April 4, they claim, Grayeyes told them when he’s not at his home, he sometimes lives with Johnson in Utah and sometimes stays in Arizona.

“There is evidence that your absences from your property are quite lengthy,” Nielson concluded (though he acknowledged when the deputy visited Grayeyes’ supposed residence in Arizona, no one was there either). “I find that this evidence sufficiently rebuts the presumption of residency arising from your previous voter status.”

Grayeyes said none of that is “realistic evidence.”

The election this November will be the first since a federal judge redrew San Juan County’s voting districts. The new boundaries gives Navajos, who tend to affiliate as Democrats, a significant majority of voters in two of three commission seats and three of five school board seats. The decision was meant to reverse the historic political domination by whites over American Indians.

But it has riled Republicans, who for three decades have been the dominant party in this desert corner of the state and for the first time are looking at losing their control over it. The investigation of Grayeyes is the latest in what has already been a tense process, underscored by race, to vacate the seats and conduct a special election, as ordered by Judge Robert Shelby.

The county, overall, is at least 50 percent American Indian and 47 percent white, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. In January 2012, the Navajo Nation filed suit armed with those population numbers, alleging that San Juan violated the Voting Rights Act by ensuring that non-Indians held majorities on the commission and nonpartisan school board — the two most powerful government bodies there.

Shelby ordered the seats be redrawn. He ultimately approved plans in December 2017 — designed by a University of California, Irvine, professor — where District 1 has an American Indian population of 11.1 percent, District 2 at 65.6 percent and District 3 at 79.9 percent. Before, just one had a Navajo majority.

Grayeyes is running in District 2, the only seat with a contested race between a Republican and a Democrat. (In the predominantly white District 1, only conservatives are running; in District 3, only liberal candidates.) It’s also the seat currently held by Phil Lyman, who decided to run for the Utah House after his spot on the commission was put in doubt by the new political perimeters.

Lyman declined comment Friday, as did the other Republican commissioner, Bruce Adams. Both referred questions to Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, who will be reviewing the case — at the request of San Juan County to avoid any conflicts of interest — for potential criminal charges against Grayeyes or others.

Davis County is some 300 miles away from San Juan — and somewhat of an odd choice. Rawlings said his office agreed to take on the case, nevertheless, “to look at it from a criminal violation standpoint, not an elections standpoint.”

The state elections director, meanwhile, did not return a voicemail left Friday asking whether San Juan County has the legal authority to kick a candidate off the ballot. Residency disputes, though, are rarely successful.

Grayeyes’ attorneys argue that the county’s leaders are trying to “find the means, once again, of denying Indian voters in the county the ability to elect candidates of their choice.” His lawyer Maya Kane believes it’s racially motivated and discriminatory.

“It just feels extremely targeted,” she said. “That letter is so infuriating because it just shows how much time and energy they’re putting in to undermine a candidate.”

San Juan’s arguments, Kane believes, are weak and absurd and won’t hold up in court.

Grayeyes has been a member of the Utah Navajo Commission for years, which requires state residency. He has also been a vocal supporter of the original Bears Ears National Monument designation — which the county strongly opposed — and sits on the board for Utah Diné Bikéyah.

He has a post office box in Arizona, which services much of the Navajo Reservation where he lives. That, he suggests, might be the source of the complaint. But he said he’s lived at his current home for 20 years and intends to “remain there permanently and indefinitely.”

Sharon Jean, vice president of Navajo Mountain, also confirmed that Grayeyes currently resides in the Utah community she oversees. He travels to Arizona sometimes, she said, because their area doesn’t have running water or electricity, and he needs internet for work.

“It’s temporary. It’s like going to a motel,” she said. “I think that’s where the misunderstanding stems from.”

It’s also possible that there’s a disagreement over what residency means. Many Navajos view the place where someone is born as their lifelong home. Grayeyes was born in Utah and his umbilical cord was buried in the state, tying him to the land. The state, however, requires a candidate to live full-time in the district for at least one year as of the date of the election.

Jean is frustrated by the county’s accusations and believes it’s an attempt to stop American Indians from gaining a seat on the government board. “What more does the white people want to verify that we are a resident where we say we are?”

If Grayeyes is determined not to be a state resident after a court challenge, the local party would have until the end of August to select a new candidate to run.