The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, DLA Piper, LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah recently filed a lawsuit against San Juan County, Utah, on behalf of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, and seven members of the Navajo Nation.
The lawsuit challenges the county’s decision to switch to a mail-only voting system that adversely impacts Navajo voters, as well as its decision to designate the only site for in-person voting at a location far away from the majority of the Navajo voters.
The lawsuit, Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission v. San Juan County et al., was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Utah and alleges that San Juan County violates provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
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.
However, because Navajo is an unwritten language, the County’s mail-only ballot system conflicts with their Section 203 obligations.
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 current voting scheme is to travel to the county clerk’s office in the county seat of Monticello, which is 84 percent white.
Because Navajo residents tend to live farther from the county seat than white residents, Navajo voters do not have the same voting opportunities as other residents: Navajo residents must travel, on average, more than twice as long as white residents in order to reach Monticello to vote in-person.
The trip for a Navajo voter takes, on average, more than two hours round trip, while the trip for a white voter takes, on average, less than an hour. For residents living in the areas in the southwest of the County that are majority Navajo, the round trip to Monticello to vote in-person is even longer and may take between nine and ten hours.
“For Native American voters, the protections long provided by the Voting Rights Act have proven vital,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “History makes clear that certain voting changes that benefit the majority, may disadvantage and impair the rights of a few. Our case seeks to protect the rights of those Navajo voters who seek meaningful access to the ballot box and the right to participate in our democracy.”