Native American members of the Navajo Nation currently make up just over half of the voting age population of San Juan County, Utah, but only one Native serves on the three-member county commission.
Last week, a Utah federal judge refused the county’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation alleging that under the current election districting plan, Natives are packed into one super-majority district. According to the complaint, the county did not use current data when it reapportioned the districts in 2011 to favor the county’s white residents, and the omission constitutes “intentional racial discrimination” under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
“The population of Indians in the county is sufficiently large and geographically compact to require two or more single-member commission districts with majority voting-age Indian populations,” the most recent complaint, filed in December 2012, said.
As the Native population has grown, the county has continued to pack the population into one district to maintain white control of the county commission and has apportioned just two districts of the five-member school board for the Native majority. According to the 2010 census, members of the Navajo Nation make up 52.17 percent of the total population and 50.33 percent of the voting population of the county.
Without proportionate representation on the county commission and school board, the Navajo Nation does not have an equal say on issues of importance to the tribe, like education — an issue with a long history of discrimination in the county.
In the 1970s, the white population made up the majority of the school board and was able to advocate for better schools for white students. At the same time, hundreds of Native American students had to be bused more than a hundred miles round trip to attend San Juan High School, the closest high school to the reservation. And elementary schools in the Native American part of the county were overcrowded, run-down and inferior to those located in the Anglo neighborhoods. As a result, many Navajos dropped out of school — San Juan High School had the highest drop-out rate in Utah — while others never attended school or were sent to schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Looking to address the problems associated with sending high school students on buses for hours each day, members of the tribe filed a lawsuit against the county in 1974 seeking to open a public school on the reservation. The county settled and built three schools for the Navajo Nation. But then in 1994, members of the tribe reopened the case and asked for another school to be built on Navajo Mountain, a more remote part of the reservation. The court eventually guaranteed a right to an equal, public education to Native Americans in 1995 in the suit that has been called the Brown v. Board for Indian County.
Utah was the last state to give voting rights to Native Americans after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a state statute barring them from voting in 1957. But even with the right to vote protected, San Juan County and other counties across the U.S. have found other ways to suppress the Native American vote.
In 1983, a Utah federal court ruled against San Juan County’s at-large voting plan, which discriminated against Natives Americans — who did not make up the majority of the county at the time — by allowing every voter in the county to vote for each representative, instead of dividing the county into districts that choose their own representatives. The settlement required that the county replace its election system with “fairly drawn single member districts.”
While at-large voting systems have been ruled unconstitutional across the country, counties with large Native American populations have turned to other methods of keeping Natives away from the polls. Buffalo County, South Dakota refused to open a satellite office for early voting on the Crow Creek Sioux reservation, effectively disenfranchising many of the 2,000 Native Americans who live on the reservation but do not have access to transportation to vote in the county seat located 26 miles away.
A separate lawsuit alleging the same discrimination in Jackson County, South Dakota was successful before the 2014 midterm and the county agreed to open an early voting polling center on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The legal action continued in order to ensure the voting rights would be maintained for future elections and in January, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened.