Almost 100 Navajos could not have voted in the September primary election because volunteers registering the Navajos didn't turn in the registration forms until after the election, according to the San Juan County clerk.
That development casts new light on allegations that San Juan County Clerk Gail Johnson illegally removed names from voter rolls."There were some difficulties in the Primary Election with some individuals who had a copy of their registration form, but their name did not appear on the registration books," Johnson wrote in an Oct. 22 letter to County Attorney Craig Halls.
"Those registration forms were not received in my office prior to the Primary Election, and as of this letter have not been turned in."
Jean Melton, an Indian advocate leading a voter registration drive, failed to turn in 75 registration forms until 4 p.m. on Oct. 16 - five days after the Primary Election. And County Commissioner Mark Maryboy, himself a Navajo, turned in 20 additional forms on Oct. 12 - the day after the election.
All of the 95 people were registered in July or August, but those registrations were not turned into the county clerk. Melton said the registration forms were being held by various volunteers living on the reservation.
Melton said it appears a mix-up on the part of volunteers may have prevented some from voting. But she adds that it was more a function of volunteers not understanding voting law and deadlines.
"It's a new experience for these people," she said. "They have never participated in elections before."
Johnson has been under attack by Indian advocacy groups for removing names from voter registration lists she believed to be duplicates. That process did not comply with state law, which requires those duplicate names to be challenged by registration agents, not the county clerk.
Advocacy groups led by Melton, Maryboy, legislative candidate Ken Sleight and students from the University of Utah conducted several voter registration drives last summer on the Navajo Reservation as part of a campaign to increase Indian involvement in county politics.
But the voter registration drive has been mired in controversy since it began, with volunteers accusing the county of being uncooperative and some county officials charging that volunteers inappropriately registered voters.
At stake could be a balance of political power in San Juan County. Most elected officials in San Juan County are anglo, or non-Indian, Republicans. But a significant turnout of Navajos - who traditionally vote Democratic - in the general election could swing the balance of power to the Democrats.
In a County Commission meeting, Sleight charged Johnson, a Republican, with illegally removing more than 400 Navajos from the voter lists because she believed they were duplicates.
State law specifies that if the clerk suspects duplication, then the clerk must transmit copies of the suspected duplication to registration agents to verify whether such registrations are duplicates or not. "The clerk may not usurp their authority to compile a complete voter roll," civil rights attorney John Pace said in a letter to the Utah Attorney General's Office.
Johnson says she gave "these people instructions on using these registration lists to ensure that duplicate registrations were not obtained." Yet numerous duplicate registrations were turned in, she wrote in a letter to San Juan County Attorney Craig Halls.
"It appears that the volunteers failed to check the registration lists against the prospective registrant. Several reservation residents called me to complain of the students and the way they were confusing the Navajo people," she wrote.
The county clerk is currently compiling a list of suspected duplications and is awaiting advice from the county attorney on what to do next.
In a press release issued by San Juan County, officials said: "It is the intention of San Juan County that anyone and everyone who wishes to vote will be registered and have the opportunity to do so. It has never been the purpose of San Juan County to remove voters' names from the lists of registrants or to keep from voting anyone who is a resident of San Juan County."
Melton is not convinced that San Juan County officials are sincere and has charged in an affidavit that Johnson was "difficult and rude. She was visibly and vocally upset by our project, and told us so at length." She also maintains that some Navajos were harassed at the polls as "illegals."