This lawsuit, brought on behalf of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and seven members of the Navajo Nation challenged the decision by San Juan County, Utah to reduce the number of in-person polling places and rely on a vote-by-mail system. In addition, the lawsuit challenged the County’s decision to provide opportunities to vote early in-person in the white part of the County, but not the Navajo part of the County.
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 in early 2016 and alleges that San Juan County’s electoral practices violate Sections 2 and 203 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In 2014, the County closed all polling places, except for a polling site at the County Clerk’s office, which was open for in-person voting in the weeks before Election Day and on Election Day. Although the County is approximately half white and half Navajo, the only place a voter can vote early in-person under the current voting scheme is to go 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 early in-person. The trip for a Navajo voter takes, on average, over two hours round trip, while the trip for a white voter takes, on average, under 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.
In addition, the County is covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act for Navajo and is required to provide effective language assistance. However, the County has failed to provide effective language and has instead relied on untrained poll-workers and family members to translate complicated ballots.
Furthermore, the postal system in rural parts of San Juan County, where many Navajo voters reside, is unreliable and not easily accessible, making it difficult for many Navajo voters to receive and return their ballots on time under a vote-by-mail electoral system.
After the complaint was filed, the County publically announced their plans to move away from a strict mail-only system and to reopen three polling places in majority Navajo precincts in the County for Election Day. Defendants filed three motions to dismiss the Plaintiffs’ case and, on July 12, 2016, the District Court of Utah ruled against Defendants on all three motions.
On August 3, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, seeking relief as to the November 2016 election. The Court denied the motion, given the County’s decision after the complaint was filed to reopen polling places.
In 2017, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The Court did not grant either parties’ motion. In early 2018, the parties settled the case. More information on the settlement is available here.