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Navajo Challenge Closure of Polling Places

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - The Navajo Nation sued San Juan County, Utah, claiming its mandatory voting by mail places a "disproportionately severe burden" on Navajo voters, some of whom must drive 400 miles round trip to vote at the county's only remaining polling place.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and seven tribal members sued San Juan County, its clerk and commissioners on Feb. 25, in Federal Court.

The 7,933-square-mile (5.1 million acres) San Juan County is the largest by area in the Beehive State. Just over half of its 15,000 residents were Navajo in the 2010 Census. It borders Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico at the Four Corners.

In 2014, the county closed all of its polling places on the Navajo reservation and went to mail-only voting. The only place left to vote in person in San Juan County is the county seat, Monticello - 202 miles by road from one county village, Navajo Mountain.

Navajo residents will have travel on average "more than twice as far" as white residents to vote in Monticello, and there is no "reliable" public transit for most Navajo to get there, the lawsuit states.

The shift "unreasonably hindered" Navajos' ability to participate "on equal terms with white voters" in the 2014 general election, and "will continue to do so in the 2016 election cycle and beyond," the tribe says.

Voting Rights Act Section 203 requires that all voting materials, including voting instructions and ballots, be provided in English and Navajo, or Diné.

But voting by mail fails to provide oral assistance to Navajo voters with limited English ability, and as Navajo is "traditionally an unwritten language," elderly, virtually monolingual Navajos cannot be assisted by written instructions in their language, according to the complaint.

In addition, the U.S. mail is often "unreliable, not easily accessible, and has limited delivery in the rural portions" of San Juan County, "placing a disproportionately severe burden on the Navajo population to receive ballots by mail, or to return them in time to be counted."

"The significantly greater average distance required for Navajo residents in San Juan County to reach the county seat of Monticello, in the context of socioeconomic factors including disparate rates of poverty and access to reliable public and private transportation, together with the history of racial discrimination and hostility toward Native Americans, place a severe burden upon Navajo residents to vote in person; this burden falls substantially less heavily on white residents of San Juan County," according to the complaint.

The Navajo Nation covers 27,425 square miles (17.6 million acres) in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest reservation in the United States and the Navajo, more than any other tribe, have maintained their language. It is the only Native American language in the United States whose number of speakers is growing, according to the U.S. Census, which counted 173,667 Navajos in 2010.

Monticello, the sole polling place, is 84 percent white.

The Navajo established their Human Rights Commission in 2006.

Among other things, it collects data on discriminatory acts against Navajos by "private citizens, businesses, organizations and foreign governments within and outside the Navajo Nation."

Plaintiff Wilfred Jones, of Red Mesa is "more comfortable" voting in person "because he is assured his vote is counted."

He would have to travel more than two hours round trip to vote in Monticello, and even to vote by mail he will have to drive over unpaved sections of road which become difficult when it rains.

Plaintiff Peggy Phillips, of Oljato, is not comfortable voting in English. She requires assistance from a translator to vote, and did not receive a ballot in the mail in 2014. Oljato, in Monument Valley, is 92 miles from Monticello.

Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Courthouse News that protections "long provided" by the Voting Rights Act are "vital" for Native American voters.

"History makes clear that certain voting changes that benefit the majority, may disadvantage and impair the rights of a few," Clarke said. "Our case seeks to protect the rights of those Navajo voters who seek meaningful access to the ballot box and the right to participate in our democracy."

Leonard Gorman, executive director for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said it was "very unfortunate" that a lawsuit was required to protect his relatives' voting rights.

"My office repeatedly requested that San Juan County rescind mail-in ballot elections in the near future," Gorman said. "I have been met with silence, other than, 'The mail-in ballot will not be lifted for now.' Many of my Navajo relatives cannot read, speak and/or write in the English language."

Gorman said that his "grandmothers and grandfathers are especially left to cast ballots they cannot read, if they receive a ballot in the mail."

San Juan County officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The plaintiffs seek an injunction for violation of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10503, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301, and the 14th Amendment

Their lead counsel is John Mejia with the ACLU of Utah, in Salt Lake City.

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