Updated 10:05 p.m. MDT 10/3/19
An upcoming special election in San Juan County has some Native residents worried they will lose representation in government.
On Nov. 5, voters will decide whether the county should explore changing its form of government, which is currently controlled by a three-member commission. If the measure passes, a committee will be established to suggest a potential change, which will go back to voters for approval.
Some say the effort is aimed at restoring power to the Republicans in the northern part of the county, after voters elected the county’s first majority-Navajo commission last year. Having two Navajo commissioners has benefitted Native residents, according to Davina Smith of Monument Valley , but the special election could result in a larger commission with more non-Native members.
“We [are] finally at the table to talk about the lack of our education system, the lack of our healthcare, the lack of our infrastructure,” she said. “And for me it’s like, no we can’t go back.”
The San Juan County Democrats hired Smith, who previously served as director of SLC Air Protectors, to do outreach on the Navajo Nation for the upcoming vote. About 6,000 of the county’s 15,000 residents live on the reservation, and Smith says most of them haven’t heard about the election.
“It’s not surprising,” she said. “Because that’s how it works in Blanding and Monticello,” referring to the county’s northernmost towns.
The mayor of Blanding, Joe Lyman, started gathering signatures in February to prompt the special election. He enlisted sponsors from around the county to help with the effort, including the mayor of Monticello, Tim Young.
County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, who is Navajo, said the effort to change the county government is driven by racism. And Willie Grayeyes, the other Navajo commissioner, said it is an attempt to restore power to those who had it before last year’s election. Lyman has denied both claims, saying he's always thought the county should have 5 commissioners.
San Juan County has a history of failing to notify Native voters about elections. In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sued the county regarding Native voters’ access to elections. That resulted in new rules the county must follow, such as airing radio ads in the Navajo language leading up to every countywide election, as well as sending liaisons to chapter meetings to tell Navajo residents when and where they can vote. The County Clerk’s office said the radio ad is in development and the liaisons have begun their work.
But reaching people on the Navajo Nation can be a slow process, according to Navajo Mountain Chapter President Hank Stevens, and he’s afraid the county is running out of time. Navajo Mountain is five hours by car from the county seat of Monticello, and relatively isolated. Stevens said he found out about the election this summer, but neither of the county’s liaisons have visited his chapter yet.
“It doesn’t give us a whole lot of time to explain to residents what it’s going to do for us back home,” he said.
San Juan County resident Dalene Redhorse echoed that sentiment. Redhorse went door-to-door prior to the election last year, registering voters on the Navajo Nation. She works for a group called Rural Utah Project, which claims to have registered around 1,600 people in San Juan County ahead of the election last year. Redhorse is worried what will happen without a get-out-the-vote effort this time around.
“Everybody’s just kind of laid back, thinking we don’t have another election,” she said. “So I’m hoping that we can reach enough people in time.”
Early voting in San Juan County starts next week in Montezuma Creek.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.