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Victory for Voting Rights and Ballot Access in San Juan County

NNHRC 4Weeks before going to trial, the ACLU of Utah and San Juan County officials settled a voting rights case on behalf of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and several Navajo individuals

How long does it take to drive to your nearest polling place? 5 minutes? 15 minutes?

After San Juan County officials switched to an exclusive vote-by-mail system in 2014, the answer for many members of the Navajo Nation was measured in hours, not minutes. Research and interviews in San Juan County determined it would take some Navajo voters two hours to drive to the only place to submit a ballot in person, while residents from remote areas of the Navajo Nation could drive for eight to nine hours round-trip. Even though San Juan County’s demographics are evenly split between Navajo and white residents, Navajos would travel twice as long—on average—to vote in-person as the county’s white residents. 

1200px Navajo flagThat’s why in early 2016 the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and seven members of the Navajo Nation sued San Juan County with assistance from the ACLU of Utah, national ACLU, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and the law firm DLA Piper. The complaint in Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission v. San Juan County alleged that the county violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

According to the 2016 U.S. Census, 4,314 of the 10,275 adult citizen residents of San Juan County speak a language other than English or Spanish—primarily Navajo—with 766 of these residents (18 percent) also speaking English “less than ‘very well.’”

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the county announced plans to reopen several polling places in majority-Navajo areas of the county. They also sought to dismiss the lawsuit but were blocked by a federal judge. The county retained the reopened polling places for the 2016 general election, but still needed to provide better language assistance to Navajo-speaking voters and do more to equalize the voting opportunities. After a year of legal wrangling, the arbitration process resulted in a settlement that both sides could agree to.

On February 21st the ACLU announced that the parties to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission v. San Juan County had reached a settlement requiring the county to implement measures aimed to provide meaningful and effective language assistance and equal voting opportunities for Navajo voters. These changes will be in effect during the 2018 elections and will include: 

Providing in-person voter assistance, including in the Navajo language, at several locations on the Navajo Nation during the 28 days before every election;

Maintaining three polling places on the Navajo Nation for Election Day voting, which will include Navajo language assistance; and

Taking various steps to ensure quality interpretation of election information and materials into the Navajo language.

“This settlement is a significant victory for voting rights in San Juan County because it improves access and assistance for Navajo voters,” remarked John Mejia, Legal Director of the ACLU of Utah. “Adding early, in-person voting, and language assistance at more locations inside the Navajo Nation, where vehicle transportation and mail delivery is often slow and unreliable, will give Navajo residents improved access to the ballot box in future elections.” 

 “Navajo voting rights is very important, especially in the counties within the Navajo Nation,” said Leonard Gorman, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. “The settlement with San Juan County to improve access to polling places and language assistance is a good place to start when working on the needs of the Navajo voters. We view the settlement as merely the bottom line from which the county has committed to work with the Navajo people.” ◄

Photos from the top: San Juan County, Flag of the Navajo Nation

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2018 Spring Newsletter >>