By Mike Lakusiak, Erin Vogel-Fox and Courtney Columbus
(Correction: A previous version of this News21 story incorrectly stated that a judge had issued a temporary injunction sought by Navajo plaintiffs in their case against San Juan County. The judge had not ruled by the date of publication.)
SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — Native Americans make up about half of the roughly 15,000 residents of San Juan County, according to census data. Many lack access to reliable transportation, and residents face a poverty rate that’s twice the national average. Floods regularly wash out roads, and tribal members may have to drive well over an hour to get to the post office.
San Juan County includes part of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the country. The county has been engaged in a court battle for years over redistricting that prevented Navajo residents from receiving proportional representation.
When the county moved to voting by mail in 2014, officials closed polling locations in rural areas, including all six on the reservation, which disadvantaged Navajo-speaking residents, according to the 2016 lawsuit.
County officials said they moved to mail-in voting to increase voter turnout. However, turnout during general elections remained unchanged in 2014 compared with the previous off-year election in 2010, according to a News21 analysis of county data.
“My first reaction was ‘What about those people that don’t speak English?’” said Terry Whitehat, a social worker who has lived most of his life within the Navajo Nation, upon receiving a ballot in the mail for the 2014 elections. “What happens to those people? How are they going to cast their vote? Who is going to help them?”
Timeline: Native American voting rights by News21
Many Navajos, especially elders, do not read or speak English well, Whitehat said. If they could not get someone they trust to translate their mail-in ballot for them, they would have to travel hundreds of miles to have ballots translated or vote in person with the aid of an interpreter. The only remaining polling place in 2014 was Monticello, 200 miles away from Navajo Mountain in the northern portion of the county, where the majority of white residents live, according to the lawsuit.
Across the country, tribal members have filed suits alleging that state laws and county election practices intentionally make it harder to vote on reservations. Local jurisdictions don’t always provide translators or polling locations on reservations, and tougher state voter-identification laws have created problems for those who don’t have birth certificates or only have tribal ID.
“Native Americans have been the victim of the political process since the creation of the United States,” said OJ Semans, a retired police officer turned Native American voting rights crusader in South Dakota. “What we need to do is organize in order to protect what our ancestors passed on to us.”
Native Americans have historically had some of the lowest turnout rates of any ethnic group in the country, according to several studies examining voter participation.
However, two recent studies by researchers at the University of Wyoming and the University of New Mexico indicated that voting among Native Americans has increased. The University of New Mexico study used U.S. Census Bureau data and found that in the 2008 general election, Native Americans were nearly 30 percent less likely to vote than non-Hispanic whites. However, in 2010 and 2012, there was virtually no difference between the two groups.
Researchers have attributed the change to various factors, including increases in educational attainment and higher incomes. The dynamic between Native American nations and government entities – from the local to federal levels – has shifted over time as Native American communities became more involved in issues such as the use of natural resources and gambling.
“That’s what pulls people to the polls for us,” Pata said. “Whether it be about Indian health care, or whether it be about the recognition of tribes and inclusion of tribes as governments.”
Even though it appears Native American voter participation has increased as a whole, many challenges remain on reservations, where nearly a quarter of the population lives.
Since 2013, attorneys have filed at least six lawsuits about voting access for Native Americans. Since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, more than 90 lawsuits over Native American voting rights have been fought, said Daniel McCool, a professor at the University of Utah who studies Native American voting rights lawsuits. They largely fall into two categories: unequal access to voting on reservations, and changes to voting laws and procedures that target Native Americans, intentionally or not.
McCool, who catalogued decades of these lawsuits in a book, said Native Americans consistently sued for equal access to voting until the mid-1970s when officials expanded Voting Rights Act coverage to more states. He said the pre-clearance provision kept states and local authorities “from doing stupid things, some would say.”
Despite gaining the rights to citizenship and voting in 1924 from the federal government, Native Americans in some states could not vote until 1962. Those who live on reservations have consistently dealt with distances and language barriers when it comes to voting. But experts who have studied Native American voting rights said recent changes to legal requirements and provisions for voting have exacerbated those problems.
After the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states and jurisdictions with histories of discrimination no longer needed to obtain clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before making changes to the voting process.
“A lot of jurisdictions that had been afraid to engage in discriminatory practices were no longer afraid because there was no Justice Department watching them,” McCool said. “And so there has been a dramatic spike in cases, not just in Indian country, but all over.”
McCool said in most cases, Native Americans have won or settled cases in their favor. For example, after the lawsuit in San Juan County, officials agreed to open polls on the reservation for the November election. Cases in South Dakota prompted county officials to open satellite polling places on tribal land.
“When you’re winning 90 percent of the cases, that means something is wrong,” he said. “That means somebody has broken the law, and we see consistent violations of the Voting Rights Act.”
Reaching out to Native Americans
Even without the barriers to vote, it’s hard to make voting a priority for many Native Americans because they often have more pressing things to worry about, Semans said.
“Even here on Rosebud, you wake up in the morning, you’re not thinking about who the president is,” he said. “You’re thinking about survival.”
Wizipan Little Elk, the outreach director for Four Directions, said Native Americans have a lot at stake when it comes to elections, making it even more imperative that they have a voice through voting.
“American Indians are the most highly regulated group of individuals in this country.”
“American Indians are the most highly regulated group of individuals in this country,” he said. “And despite the stereotypes, we do pay taxes and we have a vested interest overall in this economy and this country.”
“The quality of health care that we receive is dependent on federal appropriations and management of federal programs. We have in many senses a literal life-or-death interest in these issues.”
The National Council of American Indians operates Native Vote, a national nonpartisan initiative to mobilize Native voters both on and off reservations and advocate for their voting rights. Pata, with the National Council of American Indians, said she hopes to see more engagement among communities this election.
“This year is going to be extremely important for us to be very engaged, and I don’t think we are in a position to do that at this point,” Pata said. “More than ever, our tribal issues are on the table right now. We’ve got to show that we care and that we are going to show up and vote.”
(Editor’s Note: Marianna Hauglie contributed to this report. Reporting for this story was done in collaboration with DecodeDC, a podcast produced at the Scripps Washington Bureau.)