Federal judge orders San Juan County to put Utah Navajo activist Willie Grayeyes back on the ballot

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Willie Grayeyes with Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, at left, speaks to the Legislature on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.

A federal judge has ruled that San Juan County officials improperly invalidated the candidacy of Willie Grayeyes, a Navajo Democrat running for County Commission.

After a hearing Tuesday in Moab, Grayeyes’ attorney, Steven Boos, said U.S. District Judge David Nuffer restored the candidate’s voting rights and ordered his name back onto the November ballot. Grayeyes' name had been stripped from the ballot by county officials who said he didn’t reside in the county.

“He’s glad to get past this part of it because he would like to help guide the county in a direction where the county is solving problems for all the citizens of the county,” Boos told The Salt Lake Tribune.

San Juan County Administrator Kelly Pehrson declined to speak with The Tribune about the judge’s ruling.

Grayeyes, the Democratic nominee and a leading activist in the successful Bears Ears monument campaign, sued San Juan County after he was removed from the ballot by County Clerk John David Nielson, who declared that the candidate did not live in Utah.

Grayeyes insisted that he resided at Paiute Mesa, on the Utah part of the Navajo Reservation near the Arizona line, and records show that he has voted in San Juan elections for the past 20 years.

Navajo Nation officials condemned Nielson’s handling of an investigation into Grayeyes’ residency.

"It appears that Mr. Nielson backdated official county documents in an attempt to strip Willie Grayeyes of his candidacy. It’s clear that Nielson made egregious, if not purposeful, errors in disqualifying Mr. Willie Grayeyes as a candidate,” Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said.

Nielson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The fall election will be the first since another federal judge redrew the county’s voting districts. The new boundaries give Navajos, who tend to affiliate with Democrats, a significant majority of voters in two of three commission districts and three of five school board seats. That ruling, which Boos and Gorman had a hand in winning, was meant to reverse the historic political domination by minority whites over a majority of American Indians.

San Juan County has appealed the gerrymandering ruling, but a special election must be held in November for all the commission and school board seats.

Nuffer is expected to issue a formal ruling Thursday, explaining his rationale for overruling the county in the Grayeyes matter.

According to Boos, the judge was disturbed that Nielson had backdated the key piece of evidence against Grayeyes, a complaint lodged by a failed Republican candidate for the commission seat. In March, Wendy Black of Blanding shared with the county her suspicion that Grayeyes lived in Arizona, which would render him ineligible for a seat on the San Juan commission.

Through a series of public-records requests, Grayeyes' legal team unearthed Black’s formal challenge that Nielson had backdated to March 20, court filings say. Boos argued that the backdating appears to have been done to evade statutes of limitation for contesting candidacies and voting registration. In this document, Black said Grayeyes' purported residence was uninhabited.

“It is not livable, windows boarded up. Roof dilapidated. No tracks going into home for years,” she is quoted as saying in the backdated challenge. Yet no evidence was offered that she visited the home; rather, a sheriff’s deputy reported that Black did not find it.

“The county had violated Mr. Grayeyes' due process rights. The county didn’t follow state election code from beginning to end,” Boos said. "If you ever have a public official creating backdated, fraudulent documents, there’s a problem. Everyone has a right to expect that public officials will follow the law and not create false public documents. It is something the county admitted to.”

The left-leaning advocacy group Alliance for a Better Utah called for an independent investigation into the backdated complaint.

“If the allegations are found to be true, Mr. Nielson should resign from office, either for discriminatory behavior or for his incompetent handling of this complaint,” the group wrote in a news release. "The people of San Juan County deserve a county clerk they can trust will handle complaints with integrity and competency.”

Grayeyes is a member of the Navajo Utah Commission and the longtime chairman of Utah Dine Bikeyah, the grass-roots group that helped lead the campaign to persuade President Barack Obama to designate the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument against the wishes of county officials and many residents.

With Grayeyes’ name back on the ballot, San Juan County faces the possibility that its commission will feature two of the most prominent backers of the monument President Donald Trump slashed by 85 percent in December, citing the wishes of local leaders.

Grayeyes will now face Kelly Laws, a prominent Blanding resident running as a Republican, in the general election. Should Grayeyes win, the County Commission would have a Democratic and pro-monument majority.

The county recently certified the narrow victory of another Bikeyah leader, Kenneth Maryboy, over incumbent Rebecca Benally, a strong Navajo anti-monument voice, in the Democratic primary for the commission seat typically held by a tribal member. There is no Republican candidate for that seat.

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