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San Juan County Voting System Challenged

LetMeVoteSqThis article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2016 Spring Newsletter >>

On February 25, the ACLU of Utah, as co-counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, DLA Piper, LLP, and the ACLU Voting Rights Project, filed a federal lawsuit challenging San Juan County’s mail-only voting system on behalf of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and several individual plaintiffs.  The suit contends that a mail-only system adversely impacts Navajo voters.

The case arises from the County’s decision in 2014 to close all polling places and switch to a mail-only voting system. The County is covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act and is required to provide all voting materials – including voting instructions and ballots – in both English and Navajo.  Because Navajo is an unwritten language, the suit contends that the County’s mail-only ballot system conflicts with the County’s Section 203 obligations.

Moreover, the postal system in rural parts of San Juan County, where many Navajo voters reside, is unreliable and not accessible, making it difficult for many Navajo voters to receive and return their ballots on time under a mail-only electoral system. Although the County is approximately half white and half Navajo, the only way a voter can vote in-person under the voting process put in place in 2014 is to travel to the County Clerk’s office in the county seat of Monticello, which is 84 percent white.  The mail-only system requires Navajo residents to travel, on average, more than twice as long as white residents to reach Monticello to vote in-person. 

“It is very unfortunate that we have to go through another round of lawsuits to protect Navajo people’s voting rights in San Juan County,” said Leonard Gorman, executive director for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, on the day the suit was filed. “My office repeatedly requested that San Juan County rescind mail-in ballot elections in the near future.  I have been met with silence, other than the mail-in ballot will not be lifted for now. Many of my Navajo relatives cannot read, speak and/or write in the English language.  For this reason, San Juan County is supposed to provide language assistance to Navajo voters that are non-English readers at the polling places.  With the all mail-in ballot elections, my grandmothers and grandfathers are especially left to cast ballots they cannot read, if they receive a ballot in the mail.” 

Voting is the cornerstone of democracy. It is the fundamental right upon which all of our civil liberties rest. The ACLU of Utah works to protect and expand our freedom to vote. 

Find out more about this case Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission v. San Juan County et al