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San Juan County Wants To Appeal Navajo Voting Rights Ruling

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Courtesy/Mark Maryboy
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Former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy says the judge's latest ruling on voting rights opens the door for Navajos to have more clout in their local government and community schools.

San Juan County is asking a federal court to finalize a recent decision on voting districts. County leaders want to appeal the ruling, as the county’s Native American majority applauds it.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby issued his decision a few days before Christmas. It basically requires San Juan County to hold a special election next year using new district boundaries for three commission seats and five school board posts. And it’s aimed at reflecting the Navajo majority.

“People are very excited,” says Mark Maryboy, who was talking about the decision with other Navajos on Wednesday in Monument Valley. “They want to try to get some Navajo candidates to run for the county commission, school board and other county positions.”

Maryboy held the county commission seat targeted for Native Americans for 16 years.

“And the vote was always 2-to-1,” he says. “I can tell you that there’s a lot of opposition as far as the county serving the Navajo population.”

The question of racial gerrymandering has dogged the county for decades. It boils down to the principal of “one person, one vote,” just like ongoing African American voting rights cases across the country.

But, in rural San Juan County, it’s Native Americans who say they’re the victims of discrimination. The Navajo Nation filed suit in this case, saying the districts were unconstitutional.

But San Juan County commissioners disagree, and they’re asking the court for a final judgement so they can begin their appeal.

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Credit Judy Fahys/KUER
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San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman accuses the judge in the voting rights case of being personally biased against him over a separate case in 2014. Lyman appealed his conviction on two misdemeanor charges in that case.

“We are doing a good job - San Juan County’s bent over backwards to make sure that everybody has a vote and a voice in county government,” says San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman.

“There’s no intention to exclude anyone because of their race or political persuasion or anything else. We just want people to participate in the elections, and we’ve done everything that we could to make sure that was the case.”

Lyman contends it's the court’s decision last week that’s unfair. And, in a statement Wednesday, commissioners said the ruling makes their elections a political football.

Note: The original version of this story had an incorrect photo. The corrected photo was added 12/28/17.

The data:

San Juan County-Navajo Voting Rights Data by KUER News on Scribd

The commission-district maps:

San Juan County Commission Boundaries-Redrawn By The Court by KUER News on Scribd

The school board district maps:

San Juan School District School Board Boundaries Map by KUER News on Scribd

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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