SALT LAKE CITY — Navajo Nation member Davis Filfred prefers casting a ballot the old fashioned way at a polling place. But he's worried he may have to make a three-hour round-trip drive this November to make that happen.
San Juan County in southeastern Utah switched to an all-mail ballot election system in 2014, leaving only one polling place in the northern county seat of Monticello for that election. That meant tribal members who live in far-flung corners of the county had to drive twice as far as white residents, according to a Navajo group that filed a federal lawsuit in February over the new system.
The group urged U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish on Wednesday to approve its request for a court order requiring the county to open nine polling places for the November election, three satellite locations for early voting and staff them with bilingual workers who can help Navajo speakers.
"There's no way for us to have a redo of the upcoming election," said attorney Arusha Gordon, representing the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.
Parrish didn't rule Wednesday, but she questioned why she needs to issue the order if county officials already plan to open three locations for in-person voting on the Navajo Nation to supplement all-mail voting. The county did the same for the June primary election, which came three months after the lawsuit was filed.
Parrish said it seemed the group's argument hinged mainly on the notion the county can't be trusted rather than proof of imminent harm to Navajo voters.
"I don't think you can just say, 'I think they're liars. We don't trust them,'" Parrish said.
Gordon said county officials have failed to come through before, prompting the need for a court-ordered requirement. One such example was the county failing to air ads on Navajo radio ahead of the primary about voting procedures, she said. Their translation of ballots and explanation of mail-in voting has also been haphazard, Gordon said.
Jesse Trentadue, an attorney for the county, said the plaintiffs are glossing over changes made for the primary election and unfairly focusing on the 2014 election. He said county officials take seriously their duty to make sure Navajos have equal opportunity to vote and accused the group suing of wanting special treatment.
"They don't get a better opportunity. They get an equal opportunity," Trentadue said.
The battle has reignited long-festering tensions between tribal members and other residents in a rural county that sits in the Four Corners region of the West and covers the northern tip of the Navajo Nation that is mostly in Arizona and New Mexico.
Similar legal clashes have been waged recently in Nevada, Montana and the Dakotas over a variety of issues involving the Voting Rights Act, including access to polling places as well as unreliable U.S. mail service on reservations.
San Juan County officials defend the new system, saying it led to higher voter participation in 2014. They accuse the Navajo plaintiffs of fabricating the claims in the lawsuit in an attempt to control local politics.
The county lost to the Navajo Nation earlier this year in a different election policy clash when a federal judge ordered San Juan County to redraw the boundaries of its election districts after ruling that it had violated equal protection for American Indians. The tribe argued in a lawsuit filed in 2012 that the county's decision to maintain a decades-old boundary was racially motivated.
In Nevada, tribal leaders asked a federal judge earlier this month to order that state and two counties to establish satellite polling places on reservations where they say Native Americans are being denied an equal opportunity to vote in the November elections.
Two Paiute tribes accuse the secretary of state and the counties of discriminating by illegally refusing tribe members voting access afforded to people in wealthier, mostly white neighborhoods. Members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe living in Washoe County say they must travel 96 miles round trip to register to vote or to cast ballots in person.
In 2014 in Alaska, a federal judge ordered the state to do more to help Native language speakers understand their ballots after voters argued voting materials in both Yup'ik and Gwich'in were inaccurately translated and poorly distributed.
Filfred, a member of the Navajo Nation Council, part of tribal government, said many Navajos don't understand the mail-in ballot.
"They would rather go to a polling place. That's what they're accustomed to, and they want that back," Filfred said. "If you take that away from them, you're messing with their voting rights."