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SALT LAKE CITY — In San Juan County, a recently overturned ballot proposition would have explored changing the form of government in the county in a move supporters said would have given voice to some who felt disenfranchised by recent redistricting.
However, opponents said it would cancel gains made by having two Navajo commissioners represent the Navajo majority in the area, and potentially lead to less representation for them.
Over the past nearly 30 years, some residents in San Juan County felt their voices and votes were suppressed. The term voter suppression is any kind of attempt to stop citizens who are eligible to vote from voting.
Let’s take a look at difficulties with voter rights in the past and now, and its connection to Utah.
Voter rights then
Two of the biggest examples of voter rights in America were women’s suffrage and the abolition of Jim Crow laws. Women were not allowed to vote in most of the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote after decades of activism and protest.
Black citizens were not allowed to vote until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870. However, Jim Crow laws, including poll taxes and literacy tests, passed in many states during the late 1800s and early 1900s, prevented black Americans from voting. Since it was illegal in some states for a black person to know how to read, there were obviously some who could not pass this test.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson made discriminatory voting practices illegal.
Voter rights now
In 2013, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, that a specific section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.
This section established a formula that determined which local and state governments, as a result of previous voter discrimination, were required to obtain federal approval before making changes to voting policies or procedures.
While this allowed states to have more control over their elections, a consequence of invalidating part of the Voting Rights Act was that some laws states passed could make it more difficult for some to vote.
Reactions to the change have been mixed.
For instance, some lawmakers say they want voter ID requirements in their state to prevent voter fraud. However, opponents of voter ID requirements argue that the laws target minorities, the elderly, students and low-income residents. In addition, voter fraud is "extremely rare," according to a 2018 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
In other areas, polling places have closed. A study by The Leadership Conference Education Fund found that between 2013 and 2016 at least 868 polling places were closed in seven southern and western states once scrutinized under the Voting Rights Act. Some argue the need to close polling places for budgetary reasons, but others say it’s a way of suppressing voters, in particular, minorities and lower-income residents who live in rural and urban areas.
"In states across the country, voting procedures that wrongly prevent some citizens from voting have been enacted and have a disparate impact on voters of color and poor citizens, including but not limited to: voter ID laws, voter roll purges, proof of citizenship measures, challenges to voter eligibility, and polling places moves or closings," according to the U.S. Commission on Civil rights study.
Voter suppression was also evoked in the most recent Democratic presidential debate; however, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial cited Census data that showed voter turnout increased between 2014 and 2018 nationwide for Hispanic, black and white voters.
Earlier this year, the Voting Rights Advancement Act bill was introduced that would restore the provision of the Voting Rights Act that was deemed unconstitutional in 2013. In October, the bill was sent to the House floor. Opponents of the bill, like Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La, say it “would unconstitutionally deny states and localities control over their own voting rules,” Courthouse News Service reported. Johnson added that the bill would risk diluting legitimately cast votes.
Matthew Meisner, communications director for bill sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), told KSL.com that the Voting Rights Advancement Act “needs congressional action and Senator Leahy … and others will keep pushing until that happens.”
Voting rights in San Juan County
Last year, Buzzfeed News reported on the continued voting issues in San Juan County. The county addressed problems the Navajo community faced with translation, transportation and home addresses in rural areas that arose with mail-in voting. In the midst of this, a decadeslong issue of representation resurfaced.
Quick recap: San Juan County has a large Navajo population, with 51% of the population of Navajo descent. In 1983, the Department of Justice filed a complaint against the county in which it claimed the at-large elections of the county disproportionately favored white candidates. To avoid going to court, the county agreed to a consent decree: San Juan County would divide into three districts, ensuring at least one Navajo county commissioner.
Over time, the Navajo population became less and less proportionately represented. A federal judge ruled that county voting district lines were unconstitutional, allowing for new lines to be drawn in 2017, according to The Associated Press.
In November 2018, two Najavo men won county commission chairs, ending years of control by the minority in the area.
But it doesn’t end there. In the most recent election, San Juan County residents voted on Proposition 10, which if passed, would have seen a commission formed to "consider and possibly recommend a change in San Juan County's form of government." Supporters of the petition say the county now needs more than three districts and county commissioners to help better hear residents’ issues. Opponents said the petition is meant to undermine the new Navajo-majority county commission.
Joe Lyman, the mayor of Blanding, San Juan County’s largest city with a population of around 3,400, argued a five-district county would restore representation for Blanding. Previously, the county’s most populous city was in its own district, but now it is split.
“I still believe the current districts are gerrymandered according to the stated objectives of those who brought the lawsuit and that Blanding has been denied representation as a community of interest,” Lyman said in an email to KSL.com before the vote. “However, if the people vote to accept the current districts at least we have heard the voice of the people.”
The final canvass results released on Nov. 19 saw the proposition fall by nearly 200 votes.
"Things have changed now that Native voters are educated, registered to vote, and are exercising our democratic voice," said former San Juan County Commissioner Mark Maryboy in a press release from the Native American-led nonprofit group Utah Diné Bikéyah. "Today is a good day.”
How can you get involved
One way is something you’ve probably heard before: Contact your local senator or representative and let your voice be heard.
Another way is by checking to see if you (or anyone else you know) are still eligible to vote. You can login to vote.org and see if you are still eligible to vote in your area. If not, the website can help you get registered and tell you where and when to vote.
Things have changed now that Native voters are educated, registered to vote, and are exercising our democratic voice. Today is a good day.
–Mark Maryboy, former San Juan County Commissioner
Xoel Càrdenas is the Breaking News Editor at KSL.com. He co-hosts KSL Cafecito, the podcast that talks all things culture.