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San Juan County May Have Failed To Notify Navajo Residents About Election, ACLU Says

Photo of a yard sign with donkeys on it that says, "Just Vote No on Proposition 10."
Kate Groetzinger
The San Juan County Democrats are encouraging people to vote no on the proposition, which asks if a committee should be formed to recommend a change in the county's form of government.

San Juan County is holding a special election on Nov. 5 to ask voters if the county should explore changing its form of government. But the county may have failed to adequately notify Navajo voters about it, according to Niki Venugopal, a voting outreach coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. 

Venugopal visited communities in San Juan County on the Navajo Nation earlier this month to determine whether the county has violated a legal settlement it made with the ACLU last year. 

“There was a lot of general confusion,” she said. 

The settlement requires the county air radio ads in Navajo about upcoming elections a month before election day. It also requires there be an audio recording of the ballot in Navajo on the county website when the ballot becomes available, and that Navajo-speaking liaisons go to communities on the reservation to educate them about upcoming elections three times before election day.

Venugopal said the county may have failed on all counts. 

“It appears some people received their ballots in the mail really early,” she said, “And it seems like the translated materials weren’t available at the time they received them.” 

The county posted the Navajo translation of the ballot on its website at the beginning of this week, according to Venugopal, while some people received their ballots by mail as early as Oct. 5. And the county started airing radio ads earlier this week, she said, over a week past the deadline. 

Venugopal visited two communities, called chapters, while she was in San Juan County. She said she attended a meeting at the Mexican Water Chapter at which a county liaison presented information about the election to the community. 

“My understanding was that weekend was the first time the liaisons had made it to the chapter meeting,” she said. “Since chapter meetings occur monthly, that’s troubling.” 

Red Mesa Chapter Vice President Marilyn Holly said on Tuesday that most people at her chapter still don’t know about the election. 

“Nobody’s come around to tell us how this thing works, this different form of government,” she said. “We even asked the community on Monday, ‘Do you know what they’re talking about?’ They said, ‘No.’” 

San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson contradicted that, saying the county did send a liaison to announce the election at a Red Mesa chapter meeting earlier this month. KUER could not reach Nielson on Thursday to respond to Venugopal’s comments. 

The ACLU plans to have volunteers watching the polls at early voting locations on the reservation, according to Venugopal, and it will send down staff members to watch the polls on election day. 

“We do take it seriously if the settlement agreement isn’t being complied with,” she said. “Right now, we’re keeping an eye out and considering the options.”

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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