Navajo Indians voted as a whole bunch of people watched.
That was the election story that unfolded Tuesday in San Juan County, where losers cried foul, winners complained about media coverage and state officials saw the election and judged it "fair."Voters returned an all-Republican set of officials to county jobs, except for Mark Maryboy, the lone Navajo elected official and the lone Democrat. That's despite what organizers termed an unprecedented slate of Native American candidates and a widely publicized registration drive targeting Navajos who live both on and off the reservation.
A curious aspect of the 1990 edition of San Juan elections was the swarms of officials and unofficial election monitors. Polling places filled with federal and state authorities, as well as a handful of Salt Lake lawyers who volunteered their time in an effort to safeguard voters' rights. With the addition of news reporters, in rural districts voters were easily outnumbered by poll watchers.
Assistant Utah Attorney General John Clark said the state's presence not only prevented problems, but officials actually allowed some people to vote who weren't on election rolls. "We allowed today probably between 50 and 90 people to vote who weren't registered," he said. At least two of those special voters were non-Indians.
Anyone who had a plausible story about why they thought they were registered was given a ballot. Some had been purged from lists, according to state law, after not voting for several years. Others were listed in the wrong precinct, possibly because some Navajos live in isolated areas without street addresses.
This local election drew both Salt Lake and national media attention because it is thought to be the first time a six-candidate slate of Navajos mounted an U.S. election campaign.
But despite the disappointment registered at the ballot box, those who volunteered to aid the "Niha-Whol-Zhiizh" campaign - that's Navajo for "It's Our Turn" - felt their message had been delivered.
"We're just now starting," said Andrew Tso, who acted as an interpreter Tuesday at Aneth, a town on the Navajo Indian Reservation. "Not only Navajos, that's how I feel, but everybody due to the fact that the list of voters wasn't even organized. We had to fix it ourselves."
"I think there should be a voter registration drive each year with proper training," said Navajo Harry Johnson. "Now the Indians are more aware of what happened. And they will remember."
Jean Melton, campaign manager for the all-Indian ticket, thinks there are grounds to challenge the election results based on the county's efforts to intimidate Navajo voters.
"Voters' rights were violated to the point where the only way to rectify it would be to have it redone," she said. She said hundreds of people wouldn't have been able to vote, except for the intervention of the attorney general's office. She has statements from four Navajo who say their civil rights were violated during the election campaign, and expects more.
A number of non-Indian residents charged that the media had only focused on cries of racism, and didn't report the county's efforts to bridge the cultural chasm. "I feel some of it was a media event," said County Attorney Craig Halls, who was unopposed in his re-election bid.
"We're a little more politically diversified than we have been portrayed," said state Rep. David Adams, R-Monticello. Adams was comfortably re-elected to his fourth legislative term, defeating his Democratic challenger, Ken Sleight, of Moab.
Navajos hold not only Maryboy's seat on the County Commission, but two of the five elected school board offices. Adams doesn't think reservation residents, who under federal law pay no property taxes, are qualified to serve as county assessor or county recorder.
Racism, he said, occurs when a person is knowingly denied rights just based on his skin color. "There is no wanton denial down here. You have cultural differences. You have boundaries that determine where people live.
"There are problems down here, but we've made great strides at incorporating them into our economy and our society."
Monticello resident Kim Hoggard said the Navajos need to become accountable if they want political clout. He said if reservation dwellers want water, sewer and electricity, they ought to be willing to pay for such systems.
Native Americans who choose to live on the reservation belong to a sovereign nation, are represented through their own tribal council government and don't pay taxes.
But Navajos counter that the county's budget is balanced on royalties received from reservation oil fields. Tribal leaders are based far away in Shiprock, N.M. Since Utah Navajos are a small percentage of the tribe's population, they are easy to ignore. That's one reason why some Navajos looked to San Juan County to make political noise.
"I'm for the advancement of the people," Hoggard said. "But where do they draw the line as to what county government is for? If anybody has shorted them, it has been their own people."
Assistant Attorney General John Clark said the state presence helped prevent problems from flaring at the polls located throughout Utah's largest county.
Despite all the hoopla of this election - what the media termed as "history-making" and some locals called "hysteria-making" - Clark said the turnout wasn't noticeably higher than in previous election years.
Deputy sheriffs were called to several voting places Tuesday, ostensibly to keep the peace. Volunteer attorney Bruce Plenk said he was charged with "electioneering" by some white voters, just for standing outside the poll in Blanding and asking Navajos if they were allowed to vote.
"It's a little frustrating to do what pollsters do across the county and get paid for, then have someone claim we're breaking the election law."
Plenk said it appears from poll totals that most voters at the Blanding precinct cast ballots straight down racial lines. "I would say that very few Anglos voted Democratic, and very few Navajos voted Republican."
The race that turned nasty was matched by a nasty winter snowstorm, yet 64.6 percent, or 4,432 of 6,862 registered county voters traveled to the polls, according to complete but unofficial returns.
"I really hope that this tells the county there are problems here," said Ruth Maryboy, Mark's older sister, at county offices late Tuesday. "We will be back.
"Look at those figures," she said pointing to the chalkboard where votes were tallied at the Sun Juan County offices. "We're saying we want to be a part, and they're saying `Keep them down there.' "
Democrat Nelson Begay, a candidate for county sheriff, said he wasn't heartbroken at his loss. In fact, now that he's not campaigning, he'll have time to work - and finish his studies in police science Weber State College. His election experience will provide good material for a research paper he's writing contrasting San Juan County and tribal governing bodies.
Some residents have expressed concern over the polarization the election caused between Republicans and Democrats, Indians and Anglos. That tension was heightened by outside intervention, some say. But Joyce Martin, publisher of the weekly San Juan Record, disagrees. She thinks all the debate will bring about more ethnic awareness in rural southeastern Utah.
"I think when you have social change, you always have upheaval."