Things looking up for Navajo voters … but only if they vote

Man stands pointing fingers up in air, in front of whiteboard with numbers.

Navajo Times | Cindy Yurth
Director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Leonard Gorman speaks at public meeting on voting rights in San Juan County, Utah in Oljato, Utah, on Tuesday.

OLJATO, Utah

The director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission had good news and bad news Tuesday for Navajo voters in San Juan County, Utah.

The good news is a federal judge has appointed a neutral out-of-state expert to redraw the county’s voting districts, hopefully putting an end once and for all to the county’s history of race-based gerrymandering.

Plus, the HRC’s lawsuit against the county for reducing the number of polling places will soon be set for a hearing, and the HRC is pretty confident it will win that one too.
The bad news: None of this will make any difference if Navajos don’t vote.

Chart showing Native and Non-Native precincts and active voter participation rates.

“We can redraw the districts so they’re favorable for Navajo,” HRC Executive Director Leonard Gorman told an audience of about 20 who attended a public hearing on the subject at the Monument Valley Welcome Center. “If we act like we have been acting, it’s not going to work.”

The HRC and a handful of individual Navajo plaintiffs have been wrestling with the county in U.S. District Court for about five years, claiming the county’s voting districts — which had not been updated in 30 years prior to the 2010 Census — were drawn to dilute the voting power of Utah Navajos, most of whom are concentrated in the southern portion of the county.

Based on population, the HRC argued, Navajos should control two of the three county commission districts and three of the five school board districts, yet there has never been more than one Native county commissioner or two Native school board members.

Last year, a federal judge agreed and ordered the county to redraw the districts … but the HRC challenged the new districts too, saying they were no better.

U.S. Judge Robert Shelby once again found in favor of the Diné … but by that time the election had been held, meaning, according to Gorman, that the entire county commission and school board are sitting illegally.

On Sept. 29, Shelby appointed Bernard Grofman, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine, to submit a proposal for new districts for both the school board and commission. The county was ordered to compensate Grofman to the tune of $350 per hour.

Grofman is to come up with a plan by Nov. 15 and Shelby will accept or deny it by Dec. 15.


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Categories: Politics

About Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi’ Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at editor@navajotimes.com.