Despite a court order to reverse historic political domination by whites over American Indians in southern Utah, Navajo voters say little has changed

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this Nov. 16, 2017 file photo, Louise Rock, from the Oljato chapter of the Navajo Nation speaks at a hearing in Bluff, Utah. Navajos who once worried they'd have to drive hours to cast their ballots in Utah say a new settlement is a step forward as tribes challenge what they call discriminatory voting practices around the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, the settlement that requires tribal-accessible polling places and Navajo-language help is a victory for voting rights. San Juan County, though, says they're committed to fair elections and took the steps themselves.

Corri Benally says she got a ballot that included a county commission race outside of her district. Stephanie Holly says she and her husband were sorted into the wrong precinct although they had updated their address with the clerk’s office. Sophina Ahtsosie says she never got a mail-in ballot to vote in her local school board election.

In southeastern Utah’s rural and Republican-controlled San Juan County, Navajo voters say that little has been done in the past six months to implement newly redrawn boundaries for voting districts, ordered in December by a federal judge, that were meant to reverse the historic political domination by whites over American Indians. And there’s just one week until a countywide primary, the first under the ruling.

“They’ve had a significant amount of time to ensure that all voters in the county are appropriately placed in the correct precincts. They didn’t do that on the Navajo Nation part,” said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. “I just have a very strong perspective that the county intentionally made the decision not to implement these conditions.”

Six plaintiffs submitted a request last week asking Judge Robert Shelby to reopen the historic voting rights case so they can argue San Juan County should be found in contempt of court.

The filing is the latest in what has already been a tense process, underscored by race, to vacate all commission and school board seats and conduct a special election. The new boundaries give Navajos, who tend to affiliate as Democrats, a significant majority of voters in two of three commission districts and three of five school board seats. But the order has riled Republicans, who for three decades have been the dominant political party in this desert corner of the state and for the first time are looking at losing their hold over it.

Already, the county clerk has booted Navajo and Democrat Willie Grayeyes from the ballot after accusing him of not being a Utah resident and therefore unqualified to run (the candidate plans to challenge the decision with a lawsuit this week). Now, American Indian voters allege San Juan County is delaying implementing the new boundaries and updating its precinct lists, leaving potentially 2,000 voters, mostly living on the Navajo Nation portion of the county, with incorrect or missing ballots.

County Clerk John David Nielson could not be reached Monday. And the Navajo elections liaison for the county declined to comment. Commissioner Phil Lyman waved off the new court motion as being filled with “baseless allegations.” (Though he previously told Four Corners Free Press in May that he’d be “happy to be held in contempt” but noted that the commission voted to move forward with the redistricting plan anyway.)

“The county has done everything that they’ve been asked to do,” he said Monday. “There are going to be some loose ends, but certainly [the new boundaries have] been implemented. … They’ve been completely implemented.”

Lyman said, too, that it’s “a major shift” — 74 percent of voters will fall in different precincts under the updated system — and mistakes will happen. There have also been incorrect ballots, he added, in the county’s biggest towns of Blanding and Monticello. Each has a population that is more than 75 percent Anglo. The county, overall, is at least 50 percent American Indian and 47 percent white, according to the 2010 U.S. Census data that spurred the Navajo Nation’s original lawsuit over voting rights there filed six years ago.

Jesse Trentadue, a Salt Lake City-based attorney who has represented San Juan throughout the yearslong court fight, has contended that the redrawn boundaries amount to unconstitutional gerrymandering in the sprawling county of 16,895 residents. The latest filing by the Navajo plaintiffs, he said, doesn’t take into account the difficulty of placing residents into new precincts when many who live on the reservation rely on P.O. boxes — spread into Colorado and Arizona — and don’t have precise street addresses. “That’s vast country,” he said, but that doesn’t make it discrimination.

“What it intentional? No. Was it 2,000 voters? There’s no way in hell I believe that.”

Trentadue added that when one of the complainants emailed the county clerk, he responded within an hour and made a new, accurate ballot for her; she has yet to pick it up. The plaintiffs’ attorneys, he said, also made it difficult to resolve the problem before filing the motion because they supposedly wouldn’t share any information about who was affected by the clerical errors.

Steven Boos, who is representing the American Indian voters, responded to Trentadue in an email last week: “I do not have permission from those voters to share their names with you, except as part of a filing with the court. Perhaps more critically, in light of the county’s treatment of one of its citizens, Willie Grayeyes, I am not comfortable with sharing those names except through a process that is under the oversight of the federal court.”

Boos told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday that “people’s rights aren’t being respected if the county doesn’t properly implement those plans” for redistricting. The court filing takes it one step further to say that the mail-in ballots mistakes, if not corrected, could determine the outcome of the election.

The six plaintiffs, who shared a dozen or so complaints from American Indian voters, ask to temporarily enjoin the primary, have an unbiased administrator assigned to oversee the 2018 elections, including the general in November, and require the county clerk to go door-to-door to accurately register voters.

The court intends to move quickly on the filing with a motion hearing already set for July 2.