This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
During the last election, Peggy Phillips would have had to drive four hours, round-trip, from her home on the Navajo reservation to the predominantly white city of Monticello to cast her vote in person.
That's because San Juan County had closed all of its polling places and switched to a mail-only voting system ahead of the 2014 general election. But Phillips never received her ballot in the mail in time. Even if she had, she isn't comfortable voting in English and would have needed help from a translator, since there are usually words on the ballot she doesn't understand, according to a federal lawsuit she has joined against the county for violating the Voting Rights Act.
Phillips was unable to vote that year. Now, she's one of seven people, along with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, suing San Juan County for violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Their lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court of Utah, claiming that the new voting system "unreasonably hindered" Navajo citizens' ability to vote on equal terms with white voters.
If left unchanged, "these practices will continue to do so in the 2016 election cycle and beyond," the lawsuit reads.
"Navajo is a traditionally unwritten language," according to the lawsuit, and the mail-only system fails to "provide adequate oral assistance to limited English-proficient Native American voters."
The lawsuit also claims that the mail-only system relies on an unreliable postal service that isn't easy to access and has limited delivery in the rural portions of San Juan County, where many Navajo voters live. If they want to vote in Monticello, they have to travel on average twice as far as white residents across Utah's largest county, the lawsuit adds. That challenge is exacerbated "for a significant number of Navajo residents who lack access to reliable transportation and must contend with poor road conditions."
Thus, the system places "a disproportionately severe burden on the Navajo population to receive ballots by mail, or to return them in time to be counted," according to the lawsuit.
Among its demands, the lawsuit wants the county to reopen equally accessible polling places and provide audio translations, in Navajo, of the voter services website, the voter registration form, the ballots, and other voter information.
The lawsuit claims that the only Navajo language assistance that the county offered during the 2014 election was a phone number for a Navajo liaison to the county clerk's office for election materials. The materials were available only in English.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of a federal judge siding with the Navajo Nation on another election-related lawsuit against San Juan County.
The Navajo Nation sued the county after a 2011 redistricting left the boundaries of the largely American Indian District 3 unchanged. The Navajo Nation claimed that the County Commission relied on race in its decision to maintain the largely American Indian district's boundaries.
On Wednesday, federal Judge Robert Shelby ordered the county to redraw the district lines.