By BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Navajo man will be put back on the ballot for a Utah county commission seat after a judge sided with him Tuesday in his lawsuit against a county that disqualified him in the first election since a judge ruled local voting districts were illegally drawn based on race.
U.S. District Judge David Nuffer ordered San Juan County to put Willie Grayeyes back on the ballot during a hearing in federal court in Moab, Utah, said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. He attended the hearing.
Grayeyes sued after he was disqualified for the ballot when county officials investigated a complaint and determined he didn’t live in the district, but primarily in Tuba City, Arizona. The Navajo Nation overlaps with San Juan County and stretches into Arizona and New Mexico. Many people in the remote areas travel frequently for work and collect their mail across state lines.
Grayeyes is running as a Democrat for a seat on the three-person county commission in the remote southeastern Utah county where Navajos and Republican county leaders have clashed for years over voting and election issues.
Lawyers for Grayeyes say he’s lived and been registered to vote there for decades. They argue he was targeted because new, court-ordered voting districts could help more Navajos get elected.
The county said race and politics weren’t involved in the decision.
Grayeyes and his attorney didn’t immediately return phone calls and emails seeking comment Tuesday about the ruling.
A spokeswoman for San Juan County also didn’t immediately return phone call and emails. It’s unknown if the county will appeal and keep fighting to keep Grayeyes off the November ballot.
It’s a shame the county is spending some of its limited resources fighting this issue, Gorman said. There’s a clear pattern by the county making it hard on Navajos to vote, he said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby handed down new districts after he decided the county was racially gerrymandered to minimize the voices of Navajo voters, who make up half the electorate. Similar legal clashes have been waged over Native American voting rights in several states.
County leaders are challenging the new districts they say unfairly carve up the county’s largest city of Blanding, about 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.
Grayeyes serves on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group that supported the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument to protect land that tribes consider sacred and is home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
The creation of the monument by President Barack Obama was fiercely opposed by Republican leaders in San Juan County and statewide. President Donald Trump ordered the monument downsized last year in a move that pleased state and county leaders.