Lawsuit alleges San Juan County's new district map violates Voting Rights Act

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation is suing San Juan County over the new map that determines county commission district boundaries in elections held from 2022 through 2030.

The tribal government, along with its human rights commission and five tribal members, claim the five-member county commission violated the Voting Rights Act by approving a district map that packs Native American voters into a single district.

The map approved by the commission in December deprives Native American voters from "equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in the other four districts despite them constituting almost 40% of the county's total population," according to the Feb. 10 news release that announced the lawsuit.

The action by the commission adds to the history of racism and voter suppression that members of the Navajo Nation face in the county and in municipalities, the complaint states.

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The complaint was filed on Feb. 10 by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice along with several civil rights groups in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

Along with the county government, the lawsuit names Commissioners John Beckstead, Terri Fortner, Steve Lanier, Michael Sullivan and GloJean Todacheene and County Clerk Tanya Shelby as defendants.

A "vote here" marker helps San Juan County residents find the voting site at the Bloomfield Cultural Center during the general election on Nov. 3, 2020.

County spokesperson Devin Neeley said he could not comment because the county government has not been served with the lawsuit.

The complaint states that commissioners were presented with three maps featuring redrawn county commission district boundaries on Nov. 9, 2021.

Later that month, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission presented a fourth map that evenly distributed the Native American population across two districts and a fifth map was presented by county staff and an outside firm contracted by the county.

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The fifth map was based on comments collected during a public hearing in November.

The complaint states that commissioners voted 4-1 on Dec. 21, 2021 to adopt the district map known as A-5 which placed a high density of Native American voters into the southwestern portion of the county.

Leonard Gorman, executive director of the human rights commission office, said the map selected by county commissioners "disenfranchises" Navajo voters.

Charlene Wells hangs a poster that explains voters' rights during the general election on Nov. 3, 2020 at the Bloomfield Cultural Center.

"The Voting Rights Act sets standards for minority societies in the United States, and the Navajo Nation has followed those standards when proposing Navajo Nation maps for San Juan County Commission," Gorman said in the news release.

He continued, "the Navajo Nation priority is to maintain compliance with the Voting Rights Act and San Juan County Commission must respect the Voting Rights Act standards and the principals of redistricting when it comes to majority minority districts."

Plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the district map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, block the county from using the map in upcoming elections and order the county commission to implement a new map.

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Along with the tribe's Department of Justice, the parties are represented by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU of New Mexico, UCLA Voting Rights Project and DLA Piper LLC.

"The fight to ensure the voting rights of all Americans is taking place in county and state courthouses all across the nation," Bernadette Reyes, staff attorney with UCLA Voting Rights Project, said in the release. "In San Juan County, the Native American population must have their right to vote and to meaningfully choose candidates that represent their community's needs protected from the Board of Commissioners' dilutive districting plan."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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