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Utah News

The Navajo Nation Calls For Voting Reforms In San Juan County

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 The Navajo Nation is demanding immediate voting reforms in San Juan County, where it’s charged that Native American voters continue to be denied equal weight.

San Juan County and the Navajo Nation are still embroiled in court over whether the county’s voting districts unfairly shut out Native America voters, who constitute a majority of the county’s population. Now the Navajo Human Rights Commission is charging that mail-in balloting and the closing of remote polling places has reduced turnout for Navajo voters.

Leonard Gorman is the chair of the Navajo Human Rights Commission, he says among other services that have disappeared are 20 translators that used to help voters with limited English skills.

“Now instituting the mail-in ballot, they’ve done away substantially, probably 95, 99 percent, of that service that was provided. There is only one person now, who is part-time employed by the county, to serve the entirety of the Navajo Nation portion of the state of Utah,” he says.

Gorman says the voting availability issue was initially raised by these former interpreters.

“They’ve raised very strong concerns apparently in advance of instituting the mail-in ballot,” Gorman says. “As we’ve learned from these individuals, they’ve expressly noted to the county clerk at that time that it would impede on Navajo people’s ability to understand ballots.”

Navajo attorneys say the county’s failure to provide language help is a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Terry Whitehat is a resident of Red Mesa, one of the Navajo precincts where it’s alleged that voter turnout dropped in the, mail-in-ballot only, 2014 election.

“The area that I’m from, some of them are monolingual, meaning that they have the primary language that they speak still. And some of them are bilingual and they are able to read and write both in English and Navajo,” Whitehat says. “But people that are monolingual cannot read or write. They can just speak it.   Not only does it affect grandparents, but it affects people that are less schooled.”

Whitehat says residents don’t trust irregularities of the reservation postal system, and suspect it’s being used to “screen” Navajo voters. The ballots can also look like junk mail to those unfamiliar with the system.

“There is some level of frustration, most likely these ballots that they get are basically thrown in the trash,” Whitehat says.

Bruce Adams is one of the county commissioners in the white majority in San Juan County, and counters that mail-in-ballots are intended to expand voter access.

“The whole idea here is to hopefully give more people a chance to vote, and if you send out a mail-in ballot, then you have a chance for other family members who speak Navajo to help their non-English speaking family to understand the ballot,” Adams says.

Navajo critics say this hasn’t worked out too well, especially when you are trying to explain a technical ballot question. Commissioner Adams says cost-cutting was not the goal of closing the precincts and letting go the interpreters.

“We’re willing to spend whatever we need to spend to abide by the law and give everybody possible a chance to cast their ballot, and we’ll do whatever we have to,” Adams says.

But Adams says the county will keep an open mind concerning whether to reopen the polling places and rehire the interpreters.

“We’ll have to continue to evaluate,” Adams says. “I guess moving forward the county clerk will try and make a decision based on the information that the Navajo Nation has given.”