Courtesy Maya Kane
Voters head for the 2016 federal-election polling place in the Montezuma Creek fire station, in the portion of the Navajo Nation that overlaps San Juan County, Utah.

Election Day Turmoil in Utah Portion of Navajo Nation

Stephanie Woodard

Confusion abounded in Navajo voting places in San Juan County, Utah, on Election Day, according to observers. The county overlaps the northern portion of the Navajo Nation and runs federal elections there. Navajo Nation attorney Maya Kane was in the county’s reservation town of Montezuma Creek, while Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission policy analyst Lauren Bernally was in Oljato, also on the reservation. The two saw malfunctioning voting machines and one polling place that couldn’t offer voters any way to cast a ballot for at least two and one half hours. Meanwhile, the county office, in Monticello, Utah, appears to have misinformed voters about polling locations.

“I talked to voters who were very unhappy that their polling place ran out of ballots and had its only machine break down at the same time,” said Bernally, a tribal member. “Another voter called the county election office to find out where to go, only to be told to drive from Monument Valley to Mexican Hat and, when that was wrong, to double back to Monument Valley.” She stressed that this meant hours of driving and fuel costs.

Kane, of Kane Law LLC, spoke to a man who came to his polling place with a ballot he’d received in the mail, intending to get help filling it out, as is allowed under the Voting Rights Act. He was apparently told to go to his car, fill it out and bring it back—a frustrating experience, given that he was unsure about the instructions to begin with.

The Department of Justice would not comment on these allegations but confirmed that the agency had monitored San Juan County polling places, along with those on other reservations and in additional areas of concern in 28 states. According to information from Deputy Press Secretary David Jacobs, who works with DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, multilingual personnel gathered information on potential Voting Rights Act and Help America Vote Act issues, while maintaining contact with local officials.

A call to San Juan County’s election office was referred to attorney Jesse Trentadue. He confirmed at least one broken voting machine and the temporary lack of paper ballots; he also speculated that an Oljato voter who had been told to drive home and retrieve a mail-in ballot received these instructions during the period when there would have been no other voting option.

Trentadue said election information had been well-advertised in local media and praised the work of Ed Tapaha, whose job includes explaining voting procedures to fellow tribal members and Navajo speakers.

San Juan County has faced numerous Native voting-rights lawsuits since the 1980s, including two brought by the Justice Department. Recently, a federal court decided in a Navajo Nation lawsuit that the county’s school districts were drawn in ways that violated the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The court also found that the county had intentionally discriminated in setting up commission districts.

The county’s population includes slightly more Native than non-Native residents. However, most Navajos are packed into one of three county-commission districts; meanwhile, the other two districts are white-dominated, with small Native populations. Over the years, one Native commissioner has been regularly elected, but never a second.

“Proving intentional discrimination is very difficult, and the Navajo Nation convinced the court that the county had done that when it drew up its commission boundaries,” Kane said.

RELATED: Major Navajo Nation Voting Rights Win

Trentadue verified that the county commission has always had a white majority. He said, however, that should a second Native commissioner ever be elected, “white voters would be comfortable with this.”

The Navajo Nation has yet another lawsuit ongoing against San Juan County. The suit claims that the county’s recently instituted mail-in-voting procedures disadvantage reservation residents, many of whom are non-English-proficient and have very poor mail service.

Trentadue charged that the current election controversies arose only because “the ACLU is calling every media outlet in the country.” ICTMN cannot independently verify that claim and was not contacted by the ACLU for this story.

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