In this rural Utah county, voting issues remain despite high voter turnout in the midterm election

From delays in early voting to drop boxes picked up ahead of Election Day, hang-ups for casting a ballot remain in the rural Utah county.

When Mark Maryboy arrived at an early voting location in San Juan County to cast his ballot in the 2022 midterm elections, he was turned away and told by poll workers to wait for his mail-in ballot to arrive.

In the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, which sits in San Juan County and where Maryboy resides, early voting is supposed to be offered 28 days before the election as part of a voting rights lawsuit settled in 2018.

“I’ve always voted and I always thought voting early was a good thing to do,” Maryboy said. “But that one day, I couldn’t vote (early), it was very disappointing.”

Maryboy said he arrived at the Red Mesa Chapter House in the Navajo Nation on Oct. 10 around 11 a.m., the time and place for early voting listed on the county website.

“They had no voting machines, they said they have no ballots,” he said. He later received a mail-in ballot and voted by mail.

While voter turnout has been high during San Juan County’s last two midterm elections, concerns about voter rights and access to polling booths still linger in the rural Utah county.

In Bluff, located just outside of the Navajo Nation, Mayor Ann Leppanen said voters also experienced a delay in getting early voting set up this year.

Leppanen said Bluff was to have an in-person, early voting location on Oct. 2 but the county clerk showed up with voting machines that had not been calibrated.

“So when people showed up to vote, if they didn’t have their paper ballot with them, they’re turned away,” she said.

The county’s lack of communication with her office on election matters was frustrating, Leppanen said, and led to delays and also confusion regarding ballot drop boxes.

“(The election) just didn’t go as smoothly as it should,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune.

In recent years, the county has had two voting rights lawsuits brought against them. One lawsuit settled in 2016 alleged that voting districts ensured that white voters held a majority, which led to districts being redrawn and the first Navajo majority county commission being elected in 2018.

Another lawsuit settled in 2018 alleged the county’s shift to all mail-in voting disproportionately impacted Navajo voters and, ultimately, led to the county providing in-person voter assistance in the Navajo Nation 28 days before the election.

While San Juan County voters had issues getting to the polls early, turnout remained consistent with previous midterm years, at around 73%. In 2018, an election where Utahns voted on popular state ballot proposals like medical marijuana and redistricting, the turnout was 74%.

“Overall, the election went really fairly smooth and we had a great voter turnout,” said James Francom, San Juan County deputy clerk/auditor.

Both Francom and San Juan County Clerk/Auditor Lyman Duncan confirmed the early voting issues described by both Leppanen and Maryboy.

Duncan said the county was waiting on the state to add some items to the ballot which caused a delay in receiving ballots and having the machines calibrated.

But, according to Shelly Jackson, deputy elections director for the lieutenant governor’s office, it’s up to the county to communicate with their third-party election vendor to format and proof ballots.

Jackson said the hold-up came from an error with the county’s school board precincts which was caught during the proofing process and the election vendor didn’t have the ballots reformatted in time for the first week of early voting.

The county clerk said the error was with the Grand County school district, which includes San Juan County’s Spanish Valley area.

According to the San Juan Record, redistricting put current San Juan County school board member Merri Shumway in the same district as another incumbent, Nelson Yellowman, who was up for reelection. The error wasn’t caught until October which then disqualified Yellowman from running but he remained on the ballot.

Yellowman, who lives in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, said he feels the county clerk or the lieutenant governor’s office should have caught the mistake as he filed for candidacy in March, several months before the election.

He said the situation is another example of tactics used to keep Native Americans out of office.

“I felt like I’ve been violated and I think my voters are probably thinking the same, that they’ve been violated,” Yellowman told The Tribune.

Removing drop boxes

Duncan, the county clerk, said residents were not notified that early voting was going to be delayed but liaisons with the Navajo Nation polling locations were aware of the issue.

Because of the delay in early voting, the county decided to operate more polling locations than usual, including placing ballot drop boxes at the additional locations.

But with additional voting sites and a small staff, Duncan said some of the drop boxes had to be removed before Election Day because they wouldn’t be retrieved by the time polls closed during a busy election night.

Three drop boxes were removed on Nov. 3 — five days before the election — at the Aneth Chapter House, Red Mesa Chapter House and Mexcian Water Chapter House, all located in the Navajo Nation.

Duncan said drop boxes were available at in-person voting locations on Election Day. In-person voting was offered in Monticello, White Mesa, Monument Valley, Montezuma Creek and Navajo Mountain, with the latter three in the Navajo Nation.

Leppanen said the county also removed the drop box placed in Bluff. While the county initially told her they would pick up the box the day before the election, it was removed at 3 p.m. on Election Day.

According to Leppanen, at least five people arrived to drop off their ballots after the box was removed. She doesn’t know if those voters were able to drop off their ballots at another location, as the county never provided her with other drop box locations where she could direct residents.

Francom said there are no requirements for how long a drop box needs to be at its location and when it can be removed.

Utah law allows an election officer, such as the county clerk, to “authorize two or more poll workers to remove a ballot drop box from a location.”

Francom said it’s a “learning process” figuring out where to put drop boxes, getting permission for those locations and making sure they get picked up since their office didn’t have the manpower to pick them all up at 8:00 p.m. on Election Day.

“But we do have plans to do that better next time,” he said.