Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 8 to clarify that an alleged quote attributed to County Commissioner Phil Lyman dates to 2012; Lyman denies making the remark.
SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — Tara Benally and her 16-year-old son Delaney After Buffalo set up a plastic table alongside the last dusty highway intersection before the Arizona state line. Here in Monument Valley, in the shadows of the towering red rock monoliths sacred among the Navajo, the two are doing something that’s rarely been done in this part of Utah: conducting a voter registration drive for local Native Americans.
For the first time, Navajo and Utes living here have a chance at being fully represented at the local level when they vote in November. Even though Native Americans are the majority in this 14,750-person county, slightly edging out whites, county commissioner and school board district lines were gerrymandered to give white voters disproportionate power for more than three decades.
Many Native Americans across the West are still hamstrung by voter ID laws, polling place closures and voter registration purges. But in San Juan County and many other places, they are beginning to fight back, running for local, state and national offices, and suing jurisdictions that try to curb their political participation. They could even have a significant impact on some key midterm elections.
In 2012, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won her tight U.S. Senate race in solidly Republican North Dakota because of high turnout among Native American voters, who tend to favor Democratic candidates. They viewed the Democrat as an advocate for their communities.
But in the years after her victory, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed strict voter ID laws that one federal judge said had a “discriminatory and burdensome impact on Native Americans,” since they are more than twice as likely to lack a qualifying identification.
Despite a legal setback earlier this week, Native Americans continue to challenge the North Dakota law. Meanwhile, Heitkamp is seeking reelection. Hers is one of the handful of Democratic seats that Republicans are targeting in November.
Native Americans also have helped sway Senate races in Washington, South Dakota, Alaska and Montana, despite persistent discrimination, said Jacqueline De León, an attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, a Colorado-based legal assistance organization.
De León, a member of the Isleta Pueblo tribe, points to counties in Montana that limit the number of registration forms for reservations, in Wisconsin that put heavily Native American polling locations in sheriff’s offices to intimidate, in Nevada and South Dakota that deny polling locations on reservations, and in Arizona that shut tribal polling locations under the guise of disability compliance issues.
“Racism and discrimination exists to a degree that would be appalling to most Americans,” she said. “The disenfranchisement is familiar and the tools are familiar.”
For Native Americans in San Juan County, particularly those who live on the Navajo Nation Reservation in the southern half of the county, the lack of political power has meant no voting precincts, no new high schools or roads, no language assistance, no running water and rare jury selection during those decades. A Justice Department official, reviewing the education access for Native Americans in the county in 1997, said, “I haven’t seen anything so bad since the ’60s in the South.”
But the county was given an opportunity to change this when a federal judge in December redrew the lines, which now favor Native Americans in two of the three county commission seats and three of the five school board seats. He said the old lines offended “basic democratic principles.”
“We’re still out here every day, going door to door, explaining to the people why we’re doing this,” Benally said, as the swift desert wind blew her jet-black hair. “If we get those two county commissioners in office, it changes everything. It’s that important. This is something that needs to take place.”
In San Juan County, which is twice the size of Connecticut, the majority-white towns of Blanding and Monticello in the north and the majority-Navajo towns of Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain in the south are different worlds. Cool winds flow off the green mountains and onto the abundant grasslands of the north. It’s ideal for grazing, and growing wheat and alfalfa. It’s nothing like the red-rocked arid desert of the south. The canyon that divides the two regions is more than just a physical barrier.
Since Mormon settlers arrived in 1880, Navajo and Ute residents have had their lives, land and votes taken from them. The same year Native Americans were given the right to vote in Utah in 1957, the Bureau of Land Management forcibly removed many in San Juan County from their homes, pushing them south of San Juan River and away from the white population, wrote Daniel McCool, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Utah, in a 247-page expert witness testimony in the gerrymandering case.
Nearly three decades later, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the county for discriminatory voting practices, forcing the county in 1984 to switch the elections for three county commissioners from at-large to voting in three individual districts. But that didn’t end electoral discrimination: Even though Native Americans are the biggest demographic group in the county, most of those voters were packed into one district and diluted in the remaining two districts.
Mark Maryboy became the first Navajo elected to the county commission in 1986, and ran for years on the Navajo slogan, “Niha whol zhiizh” — meaning “It’s our turn.” In his 16 years on the commission, Maryboy was frequently the sole vote favoring investment for projects on the reservation.
“There’s so much resentment, so much opposition against a Navajo being in public office,” he said, fiddling with his silver and red-coral bracelet in the Twin Rocks Cafe in Bluff. Tall and lean at 62, he has the dark, careworn eyes of a much older person.
Political life in San Juan County has often turned ugly. White leaders, like current Republican County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams, have tried to erase the Navajo role in county history, claiming “nobody really had settled here” before the Mormons arrived. Phil Lyman, another Republican county commissioner who is now running for the state House, was once accused by Maryboy of saying in a private meeting in 2012 that the Navajos “lost the war” and should have no role in local land management. Lyman denies ever saying either statement.
Maryboy, for his part, recently called Lyman “one of the most racist people in the entire United States.”
In the last two years, the Navajo Nation has successfully sued the county in federal court over Voting Rights Act violations, forcing it to redraw county commission and school board district lines, provide in-person translators and audio ballot recordings for Navajo voters, open two new satellite voting locations on the Navajo Nation to cut travel time in half, and put a Navajo candidate back on the ballot for county commissioner after the county clerk-auditor, John David Nielson, kicked him off “without legal authority,” according to a federal judge in August.
These court cases attempt to correct a history of “invidious and intentional discrimination” in the county, wrote McCool.
Lyman said this is a “false narrative.” White-haired with piercing green eyes, his big build matches his imposing presence in a room. He draws the new county lines with his hands on the table of the Patio Drive In burger joint in Blanding, nearly knocking over his Diet Dr. Pepper.
“People are trying to destroy San Juan County,” Lyman said, arms raised. “The issues that are being highlighted in San Juan County are being highlighted by people who aren’t in San Juan County. People are being agitated by outside forces who are trying to drive an issue, which is foreign to the people who live here and not anything that’s genuine.”
For the first time in state history, though, Utah in November will send officials to a county to observe an election, making sure court directives are followed. Justin Lee, state director of elections, said the county and its clerk, Nielson, lost the state’s confidence in running fair elections.
The history of discrimination only adds to a deep sense of hopelessness among Native voters here. It’s pervasive and widespread, said Leonard Gorman, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.
“It’s hard to convince people that change is here, change will happen,” Gorman said. “It’s challenging for them to take a second look.”
It’s a challenge that Benally and her son face when they attempt to register new voters. The two are part of the skeleton staff of the Rural Utah Project, a Moab-based nonprofit focused on energizing the state’s spread-out and isolated communities. Since February, they have registered more than 1,400 Navajo voters in San Juan County, and continue to update voters’ registration to match the new district lines.
It’s quiet on this stark, cloudless plateau as the former carpenter waits to register voters, save for the occasional tourist bus, SUV or pack of motorcycles taking the long pilgrimage to the monuments that have come to define the cinematic Wild West. She weaves Navajo words into her passionate speech — she talks about “ho’zho,” a concept of balance and beauty, and protecting the Diné, her people.
In 2014, the county became the 27th of 29 in Utah to adopt a vote-by-mail system. But that’s come with its own challenges. Children often translated ballot initiatives and candidate information for elders who don’t understand English, Benally said. It’s a common problem for Native Americans across the county.
Many other Navajo, who often share a P.O. Box with several others, threw ballots away, thinking they were junk mail, or missed the filing deadline. As a result, voter turnout among Native Americans in San Juan County dipped in the 2014 election.
Only a quarter of county residents have street addresses, so they rely on GIS coordinates to place their homes on voter registration forms. Since the redistricting, many registrations are outdated and often misplace voters. If she can’t find coordinates on her cellphone from a lack of signal, Benally asks voters to describe their home’s physical location — “four miles west of Goulding’s” or “two miles north of Train Rock” — so she can place them in the right precinct. They can then write a P.O. Box as their mailing address.
As Benally registers 27-year-old Shaye Holiday, a soft-spoken man with red braces and hair tied in a bun who has never voted in the county, a silver Chevy pickup truck pulls over to the side of the road.
Nelson Yellowman, clean-shaven with muddy shoes and a black Denver Broncos hat, has come to update his registration. The county, Navajo Nation and the Rural Utah Project have been busy correcting GIS locations of voters’ addresses ahead of the November election.
“I might be in a lake,” he joked, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his gray cargo pants.
Yellowman, who is running for his fifth term on the school board, said he is constantly fighting to allow Native children to use facilities throughout the school district.
Later in the afternoon, Benally and After Buffalo leave their roadside registration operation and head to nearby Oljato to register more voters at their homes. But canvassing to register voters isn’t like going door to door in Salt Lake City or another compact, traditionally zoned community. The county roads are made of gravel and dirt. When it rains or snows, cars and buses get stuck. The county refuses to pave the roads, claiming they are the responsibility of the reservation. The Navajo Nation says it’s the job of the county. The roads remain dilapidated.
It’s a bumpy, nauseating ride to the trailers and one-story shacks with old tires, plywood and rusted truck shells littering their properties that hug red bluffs. A dozen thin cows graze the desert brush that dots the desert floor, as a dust devil churns up the sandy earth 100 feet in the air. It’s the same trip children make every day in buses to school.
Leonard Holiday gladly fills out a registration form after learning about the new districts.
“Oh wow, that would really help us,” he told After Buffalo. “Though, the last time I tried voting they ran out of ballots. The voting machine broke another time. It’s disappointing.”
This sort of interaction has happened with dozens of voters, Benally and After Buffalo said. People often tell them their vote doesn’t matter, they don’t care, the system doesn’t want them, and they don’t want to be part of the system. It’s Maryboy’s biggest frustration as a community leader.
“Most Navajos have been beaten down to the ground for so many years,” Maryboy said. “There’s no confidence in themselves or their government. They’ve seen the roads when it snows, when it rains, the buses get stuck. Students miss school. Over the years, they felt the county government is a worthless government.”
As is the case in San Juan County, voter turnout among Native Americans is far less than other racial groups. American Indian and Alaska Native turnout is 5 to 14 percentage points lower than registered voters from other racial or ethnic groups, according to a 2012 study from Demos, a New York City-based think tank. Further, among the Native population over age 18, a third — or one million people — are not registered to vote.
There are many reasons for such low turnout. A January survey of Native American voters in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and South Dakota by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, a Native American Rights Fund-backed group of nonprofits, activists and lawyers, found that isolating geographic conditions, a lack of registration drives and language assistance, non-traditional mailing addresses and distrust of government were just some of barriers Native voters listed.
While Native American voter engagement is rare, De León said, some tribes have made special efforts to register voters and approach local counties to get more people to the polls, including the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona and the Suquamish Tribe in Washington.
In New Mexico, the secretary of state’s office runs the Native American Voting Task Force to assist voters in the electoral process. And in Alaska, the Native American Voting Rights fund won a lawsuit in 2014, forcing the state to provide language assistance in 29 Native communities through the 2020 general election.
As the Native American population continues to grow across the country — from 1.9 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2015 — so too has their political representation. Now, 64 Native Americans serve as state legislators in 15 states. And there are two Native American U.S. congressmen.
In November, Democrat Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, is favored to become the first female Native American elected to Congress.
James Adakai, a Navajo who is chairman of the San Juan County Democratic Party, thinks Native Americans can help Democrats win future elections in the county, as well. Hillary Clinton lost here by 600 votes in 2016, 37 to 48 percent.
Democrats held their first county convention in March, where 300 people came. It was “momentous and historic,” he said, moving his hands from his chin of stringy black hair to his bolo tie with the seal of the Navajo Nation. If Navajos come out in force, it could make this Republican corner of Utah a little more Democratic.
“We’re dealing with something that other parts of the country dealt with 50 years ago: racial and social injustices,” he said. “Native Americans’ votes have been disenfranchised for a very long time. It would mean a lot to fix that.”