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Coronavirus pandemic led San Juan County Clerk's Office to reduce number of voter convenience centers from 33 to 9

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AZTEC — The coronavirus pandemic may have hampered Navajo Nation residents’ access to voting sites during the primary election on June 2.

The San Juan County Clerk’s Office reduced the number of voter convenience centers from 33 to nine for this year’s primary election. Of those nine sites, two were located on the Navajo Nation. In the past, there have been 14 locations where San Juan County voters could cast ballots.

When reached on election night, state Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, told The Daily Times that some would-be voters had indicated to her they went to their normal voting site to cast ballots only to find that the location was closed.

More: Incumbent Pinto claims comfortable win in state Senate District 3 primary

“My office faced a lot of challenges going into this election,” County Clerk Tanya Shelby said in an email. “Reducing polling places because the sites we normally used were either closed and we were not able to contact anyone, we didn’t have enough workers to work them or they simply did not want us to use their sites for this election.”

Shelby said 62% of the poll workers are older than 60 years old, placing them at greater risk if they were to catch COVID-19. That led to fewer volunteers than in previous years.

In the past elections, the County Clerk’s Office has relied heavily on chapter facilities. Those facilities were not available for use this election.

The latest: Here are the latest coronavirus updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

When reached by phone following the election, Shelby said she had hoped the Newcomb Fire Station could provide a familiar, centrally located voting site for Navajo Nation residents. In addition to the Newcomb Fire Station, the Central Consolidated School District business offices in Shiprock served as a voting site.

Some residents in the Crystal Chapter area had to drive about 30 minutes to get to Newcomb to cast ballots while in the past they would have been able to cast ballots at the Crystal Chapter facilities.

Meanwhile, Navajo Nation residents in the Lake Valley and White Rock area had to drive more than an hour to cast ballots at the closest San Juan County voting site. In the past, those voters could cast ballots at the Lake Valley School.

Absentee voting drives up turnout

The secretary of state and county clerks statewide pushed for absentee voting during the primary to reduce the number of people showing up at polling locations.

On election day, the San Juan County Clerk’s office sent people to each of the post offices in the county including in Navajo, New Mexico, to pick up any absentee ballots that had been taken to those locations. Navajo is in McKinley County, but the post office in Navajo is used by Crystal Chapter residents.

Shelby said the voter turnout surpassed the 2016 election.

“We saw an increase of 6,323 voters in this election compared to the 2016 Presidential Primary election,” she said in the email.

Others are reading: Navajo Lake State Park reopens as coronavirus-related restrictions are relaxed statewide

Shelby said voters took advantage of the absentee ballot applications that were mailed to them, and the county had 10,869 absentee ballots cast. In comparison, there were 1,047 people who voted absentee during the 2016 primary.

Early voting also had higher turnout than in 2016. This year, 4,075 voters cast ballots early compared to 3,689 during the 2016 primary.

However, in-person election day voting was significantly lower than in 2016. This year, 5,802 people went to the nine voting sites to cast ballots on election day, compared to 9,687 in 2016.

Report: Native Americans have less ability to vote by mail

But absentee ballots — which are mailed to voters — are less accessible for Native American voters, according to a report issued by the Native American Rights Fund.

The Native American Rights Fund’s report focused on mail ballot elections and emphasized the need for in person voting in Native American communities.

According to the report, Native American communities do not always have mail delivery to homes and often rely on post office boxes. These can be far away. The report states that some Navajo Nation residents travel 140 miles round trip to access postal services.

Read more: IHS Director: More funding provided to hospitals to address conoravirus

In addition, mailing a ballot requires access to a vehicle as well as gas money and time.

The absentee ballot instructions were also written in English and Spanish, but did not include a translation in Native languages. According to the Native American Rights Fund, not having the instructions translated into Native languages can make it harder for Native Americans whose primary language is not English.

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Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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