Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

San Juan County scraps gerrymandered voting map • Source New Mexico

After more than two years in court, San Juan County officials agreed to adopt a new county commission voting map that supporters say gives Native American voters a bigger voice in who is elected to the local seats.

The settlement announced on Monday resolves a dispute between the county and the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and five Navajo voters who sued and alleged a new map adopted in 2021 violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

“For decades, and despite being the majority, our people were only able to elect one Navajo Commissioner in San Juan County,” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said. “Now we have an opportunity to change that through more equal treatment of Navajo votes in the County redistricting process.”

Navajo voters make up 92% of Native American people in San Juan County. When the San Juan County Board of Commissioners redrew its maps for county seats, it packed Native American voters into one district, rather than equally distributing those people into the two districts where they make up the majority.

Under the new map, 74% of eligible voters in San Juan County Commission District 1 are Native American, and that voting bloc makes up 67% of voters in District 2.

Commissioners are responsible for determining issues that affect local residents’ lives such as setting aside money for roads and collecting taxes.

Navajo Nation interests were joined in the lawsuit by the UCLA Voting Rights Project, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU of New Mexico, and the global law firm DLA Piper.

“The suppression of the voting power of the Navajo residents has made it harder to achieve important policy priorities, such as providing and maintaining critical infrastructure on Navajo Nation land,” the UCLA Voting Rights Project said Monday.

While the settlement itself has not been made public, its terms and the new map were included in a Sept. 11, 2023 email from an ACLU paralegal to U.S. District Court Judge James Browning.

According to the email, which was included in court records, San Juan County agreed to the new map on Sept. 8, 2023 and formally adopted it four days later. The map will remain in effect until after the next census in 2030.

The map is technically in effect for the 2024 elections, however, the two county commission districts at issue will not open up until the next midterm elections in 2026.

San Juan County Commission Website map


County opposition to settlement agreement

Attorneys for San Juan County argued in March 2022 that the map didn’t dilute the power of Navajo voters, and denied any violation of the Voting Rights Act.

During a 22-minute conference call on Feb. 2, 2024, the county’s lawyers said a written settlement agreement wasn’t needed because they never agreed to sign one and had already done everything they agreed to in the Sept. 11 email, according to a court clerk’s minutes of the phone call.

Still, San Juan County and Navajo Nation officials signed the settlement agreement on Feb. 28, 2024. Judge Browning dismissed the case on March 22.

As part of the settlement, the county and Navajo Nation issued a joint news release saying they agreed to the new map “in the spirit of cooperation” and that it “addresses concerns raised by the Navajo Nation in providing more meaningful opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.”

“The Navajo Nation and San Juan County hope that this resolution will allow them to move forward in improving the lives of San Juan County residents and members of the Navajo Nation,” the joint statement reads.

Reached for further comment on Tuesday, San Juan County spokesperson Devin Neeley shared the joint statement.

What did the old map do?

Native Americans are the largest population group in San Juan county, accounting for 39.8% of the total population and 38.7% of eligible voters, according to the lawsuit.

White residents make up less than 40% of the county’s population and control four of the county’s five commissioner seats. The old maps essentially created a Native American seat, where historically Native voters had to elect their candidate of choice in District 1 only, the lawsuit alleged. 

The gerrymandering also left three commission districts where Native people “are ineffective electoral minorities.”

“The Navajo people have endured centuries of discrimination in San Juan County, including through the discriminatory redistricting map dismantled by this historic settlement agreement,” said Ryan Snow, counsel with the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Minutes from a Dec. 7, 2021 San Juan County Commission meeting cited in the lawsuit show the commissioners tabled a voting map proposed by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, and adopted the gerrymandered map.

The gerrymandered map “packed” Native American voters into District 1 to the point where a “grossly excessive” 83.3% of the eligible voters in the district were Native, the lawsuit said.

This left District 2 with too few Native American voters to have “an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.” The suit alleged the unlawful dilution harmed Native American voters in District 2, where two Navajo candidates had lost in 2014 and 2018.

“In both elections, widespread and systematic bloc voting by Non-Hispanic White voters defeated the Navajo candidates, resulting in the election of a Non-Hispanic White Commissioner from District 2,” the lawsuit said.

Bernadette Reyes, voting rights counsel with UCLA Voting Rights Project, said the settlement “reaffirms the principle that every voice deserves to be heard in our democracy.”

“By securing the equal opportunity to elect preferred candidates in two out of five seats on the County Commission, the Navajo people will finally have a substantial and long-overdue influence in shaping their county’s governance,” Reyes said. “This case underscores the vital importance of protecting voting rights and ensuring fair representation for all citizens.”

Snow said much work remains to be done to ensure equal access to democracy for the Navajo people.

“This is an important step we hope will lead to better decisions by the county in serving its Navajo community members for years to come,” Snow said.

Preston Sanchez, senior Indigenous justice staff attorney with ACLU-NM, said it’s imperative that New Mexico county leaders consult with tribal leadership to ensure that Native voters are adequately represented whenever voting maps are redrawn.

“Tribes have a right to determine what is best for their own communities,” Sanchez said. “We will continue fighting in collaboration with Tribes to ensure those rights are respected.”



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