Potential electioneering by San Juan County clerk adds controversy to already heated special election

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

Bluff • As San Juan County heads into a controversial special election that could expand the size of the County Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has identified a number of irregularities in the early voting process, including potential electioneering.

The allegations are likely to increase tensions over the election, which opponents see as an attempt to undermine the first majority-Navajo County Commission.

Last week, ACLU poll monitors at early voting locations discovered copies of a letter to the editor of the San Juan Record newspaper outlining support for Proposition 10, a ballot initiative that would form a study committee to recommend changes to the county’s form of government.

The letter, which was outlined in highlighter and available next to official election materials provided by the county, was written in September by Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman, who headed the petition drive last spring that initiated the special election.

“The presence of such material at a polling location raises serious questions about electioneering, defined as a deliberate attempt inside or nearby a polling location to influence voters to vote for a particular candidate or issue,” the ACLU of Utah said in a statement.

Electioneering is class A misdemeanor under Utah code, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Reached by The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday, County Clerk John David Nielson acknowledged that he had distributed copies of the letter to the editor at early voting locations in an attempt to educate residents on the history of the proposition.

“It was meant to be informative,” Nielson said. “There were questions [from voters] about ‘why did this happen?’ I don’t know how to explain it other than have the person who started it [Lyman] show his point of view. The idea that this could be swaying [voters] never crossed my mind.”

Nielson added that as soon as he received an email objecting to the distribution of the letter, he ceased giving it out at polling locations.

The letter appeared at up to six early voting locations on and near the Navajo Nation before Nielson received the complaint.

(Courtesy of ACLU of Utah) Letter to the editor of the San Juan Record newspaper encouraging people to vote for Proposition 10 in a San Juan County special election. The highlighted letter was being distributed at an early voting location in Monument Valley, Utah, by County Clerk John David Nielson on October 18, 2019.

Lyman wrote the letter in response to comments by County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation, that the petition drive was started as a racially motivated attempt to unseat the majority-Native American commission. The sentiment has since been echoed by members of the San Juan County Democratic Party, which has hired field staffers to campaign against the proposition.

In the letter, Lyman argues that Maryboy’s remarks were false and that the five sponsors of the petition were “diverse" and hailed from all corners of the county, including the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute town of White Mesa. Lyman also says he supported changing the county’s form of government long before the new commission took office.

Lyman has since written other op-eds encouraging voters to support Proposition 10.

“These reports that county officials and representatives appear to have made these materials available and even facilitated their distribution inside polling places have left us incredulous," John Mejia, legal director at the ACLU of Utah, said in a statement. “We are demanding answers on how this happened and how the county plans to respond.”

Early voting started on Oct. 7, as was required under a settlement agreement to a voting rights lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the ACLU against the county.

The lawsuit was filed in 2016 after the county eliminated in-person voting opportunities and switched to a vote-by-mail system, which the plaintiffs said violated the rights of Navajo language speakers. The county agreed to a settlement in 2018.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Handmade sign in Monument Valley, Utah, ahead of the Nov. 5 special election in San Juan County.

The ACLU has identified other irregularities and potential violations of the settlement agreement. “The required Navajo-language radio ads were aired over a week late,” the group said. “The Navajo-language audiotapes describing the election were not made available on the county website or at satellite early voting locations when early voting began. And one county representative created a voter guide (in English) that was mostly unreadable and poorly designed.”

Vote-by-mail ballots were sent to some county residents in early October, potentially 10 days earlier than is allowed by Utah code and before Navajo language materials were released by the county.

“We are working as much as we can with the county to try to remedy these situations,” Mejia told The Tribune, adding that the county has been responsive. “They are definitely listening and working with us. But to some extent, on some of these problems, you can’t really turn back the clock."

Nielson came under fire last summer when he was found to have improperly backdated a complaint brought against then-commission candidate Willie Grayeyes, a Navajo and Democrat, by Blanding resident Wendy Black. Black alleged that Grayeyes was not a Utah resident, and Nielson removed him from the ballot after an investigation by the sheriff.

Grayeyes was reinstated by a federal judge when the backdated document was discovered. Grayeyes won his election in November and was determined to be a Utah resident by a judge after another lawsuit was filed against Grayeyes in January.

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.