SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah county is crying foul over a lawsuit filed by members of the Navajo Nation who say a move to hold elections only by mail disenfranchises people who live on remote parts of the reservation where mail service is unreliable.
San Juan County countered in a recent court filing that the Navajos fabricated the claim in an attempt to control local politics.
The county said voter participation actually increased in 2014, in part because the mail-in voting allowed Navajos who work out of town or go away to college or the military to cast ballots.
"Why would you want to do away with vote-by-mail when it allows more people to vote?" asked lawyer Jesse Trentadue, who represents the county.
County officials also said the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed and signed off on the voting procedures and that improvements are being made for this year's election.
John Mejia, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah who represents the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, declined comment on the latest claims by the county.
In the lawsuit filed in February, the commission and several tribe members say the decision to close polling places in 2014 was discriminatory and denied Navajos the same ability to participate in elections as white voters.
Postal service on the Navajo Nation is unreliable and not all Navajos can read English, the suit alleges. It also said the distance Navajos had to travel to the one polling place in the county, Monticello, was more than twice as far as white residents.
After meeting with U.S. Department of Justice representatives last fall, the county said it plans to have three in-person polling locations on the Navajo Nation during the 2016 election.
Every county resident will be within a one-hour drive of a polling location, the court filing said.
That change was announced in the Navajo Times newspaper, Trentadue said.
Additionally, the county plans to air Navajo-language radio announcements on two Navajo stations explaining the vote-by-mail process.
Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered San Juan County to redraw the boundaries of its election districts after ruling it had violated equal protection for American Indians.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby came in a lawsuit the Navajo Nation filed against the county in 2012. The tribe argued that the county's decision to maintain a decades-old boundary for District Three was racially motivated.
Shelby said the county should have re-evaluated the district with each new Census count.