SALT LAKE CITY – A federal judge has handed down new voting districts to replace those declared discriminatory against American Indian voters in southeastern Utah, but a prominent county commissioner said Friday that the county plans to appeal.
The new election districts are designed to give an equal voice in local races to American Indian residents who make up about half the population. Mark Maryboy called them a well-deserved victory that comes after a half century of struggle.
“It means a great socio-economic development for the Navajo people in San Juan County,” said Maryboy, who is Navajo and a former county commissioner. “Navajos make better county officials. I don’t think Navajos will discriminate against the white county population.”
San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman, though, said the changes unfairly carve up the county’s largest city into three districts.
“It’s unnecessary to divide up a town like that,” Lyman said. “It’s intended to harm Blanding.”
The Navajo Nation, which covers parts of Arizona and New Mexico as well as Utah, sued the county in 2012. They said school board and county commission districts were racially gerrymandered.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby declared the boundaries unconstitutional last year, and later rejected new maps drawn by both sides. The judge appointed an independent expert and personally ran public meetings to hear local feedback before handing down the new boundaries on Thursday.
Ethel Branch, Navajo Nation attorney general, called it a hard-fought victory that remedies long-standing injustice against Navajo voters.
“These boundaries are fair and ensure Navajo votes will matter,” Branch said. “We really look forward to what the elections will bring in terms of truly representative leadership.”
The election-district case is not the only source of friction. San Juan County contains Bears Ears, a sprawling national monument that former President Barack Obama created in 2016 despite objections from county leaders who called it federal overreach.
President Donald Trump this month drastically shrunk that monument, delighting county leaders and the state’s GOP leaders but angering the Navajo and other tribes who pushed for the land to be protected.
Lyman sees the redistricting as the latest in a line of federal decisions taking power away from the rural county. Lyman became a cause celeb in the states-rights movement when he was charged with misdemeanors in an ATV ride protesting federal management of a popular canyon.
“I don’t know of any other county that is dictated to as much as San Juan County is,” Lyman said.
Members of the Navajo Nation also filed another election lawsuit over a decision to close polling places and move to a mail-in ballot system. They say it put them as a disadvantage because the postal service on the Navajo Nation is unreliable, not all Navajos can read English, and they’d have to travel more than twice as far as white residents if they wanted to vote in person.
San Juan County previously settled U.S. Department of Justice claims that it denied American Indians an equal opportunity to participate in the political process in the 1980s.