Navajo man fights disqualification from ballot as San Juan County deals with court-ordered elections changes

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke poses with Rebecca Benally, who is running for reelection as San Juan County commissioner. Salt Lake City, Dec. 4, 2017 | File photo by Tami A. Heilemann, U.S. Department of the Interior, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Navajo man filed suit Wednesday challenging a Utah county’s decision to disqualify him from the ballot in the first election since a judge ruled local voting districts were illegally drawn based on race.

Lawyers for Democrat Willie Grayeyes said in a statement the finding by San Juan County was an attack on his race and political views.

Willie Grayeyes | Photo courtesy of utahdinebikeyah.org, St. George News

Grayeyes was disqualified from running for a county commission seat last month, after county officials investigating a complaint were told he lives primarily in Tuba City, Arizona. They have said race and politics weren’t involved in their decision. County officials didn’t have immediate comment on the lawsuit.

Grayeyes has lived and been registered to vote in San Juan County for decades, his lawyers said. They argue he was targeted because new, court-ordered voting districts could help more Navajos get elected.

Grayeyes serves on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group that supported the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument to protect land that tribes consider sacred and is home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.

The creation of the monument was fiercely opposed largely by Republican leaders in San Juan County and statewide. President Donald Trump ordered the monument downsized last year.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates condemned the county decision, saying in a statement that it’s a continuation of a “historical pattern where Navajos have been denied the ability to vote and be elected in county and state elections.”

Native Americans could not vote in Utah until 1957.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby handed down new districts after he decided the county was racially gerrymandered to minimize the voices of Navajo voters, who make up half the electorate. Similar legal clashes have been waged over Native American voting rights in several states.

County leaders are challenging the new districts they say unfairly carve up the county’s largest city of Blanding.

The Navajo Nation overlaps with San Juan County and stretches into Arizona and New Mexico. Many people in the remote areas travel frequently for work and collect their mail across state lines.

In addition to newly-drawn districts, a separate lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Utah resulted in a settlement requiring the county to operate three voting locations on the Navajo reservation and one in Monticello for Election Day voting, according to a statement from Jason Stevenson, strategic communications manager for the ACLU of Utah.

The settlement also required that Navajo language assistance be available at those voting locations.

San Juan County residents who are not registered to vote or their mail-in ballot was wrong, incomplete or damaged can still register to vote at a voting place on Election Day and cast a vote.

St. George News contributed to this report.

Written by LINDSAY WHITEHURST, Associated Press

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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1 Comment

  • Craig June 24, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    1. Where does he live?
    2. Supplying interpreters is inappropriate?
    3. Why are people residing on the Reservation voting in elections off the Reservation.

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