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Utah’s Navajo residents hope redistricting brings needed resources

There is a heated battle in one Utah county over voting district lines and the effect on Native American representation. Last year, a federal judge ruled that the districts had been gerrymandered by lumping the Navajo into a single bloc, drawing angry reaction from some. Special correspondent Tommy Brookbank from the University of Southern California's Annenberg Rural Reporting Initiative reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, how voting district maps are drawn can help determine which political party controls power.

    The U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled in two cases this term, keeping in place boundaries in Maryland and Wisconsin. A fight is still raging in one Utah county over current district lines and their effect on the voice of Native Americans.

    From the University of Southern California's Annenberg Rural Reporting Initiative, Tommy Brooksbank has the story.

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    San Juan County is the largest county in Utah, about the size of New Jersey. It stretches from the predominantly white Mormon towns of Monticello and Blanding in the north, to the vast Navajo Reservation in the south.

    It is also the poorest county in the state.

  • Rebecca Benally:

    On the Navajo Reservation, the unemployment rate is around 72 percent.

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    Rebecca Benally's county district includes the Navajo Reservation. She is currently the only Native American serving as one of three county commissioners, even though the Navajo are a majority of the total population.

    But that could change when residents go to the polls for a special election in November. Late last year, a federal judge ruled that the county voting districts had been gerrymandered, in violation of the Constitution, by lumping the Navajo into a single voting district.

    The ruling was a huge victory for the Navajo Nation and for Wilfred Jones, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

  • Wilfred Jones:

    There were some tears that were shed at that moment for my family on my side.

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    Jones decided to sue because, he argued, Navajo residing within the county district that includes the reservation had been denied critical services.

    His own sister died because there was no ambulance available like this one in the north to take her to a county hospital.

  • Wilfred Jones:

    And she had a heart attack and they couldn't get there until about an hour later, which was too late.

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    The old county commission map placed most of the Navajo population in the 3rd District, which guaranteed that the other two districts would have the final say on county issues.

    The new map, drawn up by a court-appointed expert and put into effect in December, spreads that population around. Reaction to the court's decision in the northern part of the county was swift and angry.

    Kelly Laws is the Republican candidate for county commissioner in District 2. That is the district that could potentially swing the three-member council majority to the Navajo. He is furious the new district lines trisect the town of Blanding.

  • Kelly Laws:

    This is a perfect case of gerrymandering at its very best. And the part that's interesting is, how many other counties in the nation have had this done to them?

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    But the argument that gerrymandering has been replaced with more gerrymandering has been rejected by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which denied the county's most recent appeal. The court says the new district boundaries fairly reflect the overall population.

    New voting lines aside, the two parts of the county are still worlds apart. On the Navajo Reservation, some people live without electricity or running water and school buses must travel over miles and miles of dirt roads.

    In the northern part of the county, there are two big libraries, a community center on a golf course, and two hospitals. Navajo residents are hopeful that the redistricting, which affects both the county commission and the school board, might bring more resources their way.

    Curtis Yanito is a candidate for the school board. He lives on the south side of the San Juan River, which he sees as just one more barrier to connecting with the northern part of the county. He hopes the new district lines will mean more resources for reservation children.

  • Curtis Yanito:

    I know that there's funds out there, but it just stops right there, where the border's at. It doesn't come this way. And all these funds that I have seen that happened in the past, it's just been out on that side.

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    The debate over redistricting is playing out against a long history of anger by white conservatives here over what they see as federal overreach.

    In 2014, it was a face-off with the Bureau of Land Management over ATV use in recaptured canyon. And more than a decade ago, federal agents swarmed into Blanding and arrested a number of citizens for illegal trade in Native American artifacts.

    One of those arrested was a local physician, who later committed suicide. Librarian Nicole Perkins still gets emotional about it.

  • Nicole Perkins:

    The raids, when they came and raided Dr. Redd and his family and the other people here, you saw all the local people — a lot of people said, well — they came in with guns and vehicles and just like we were ISIS or something.

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    Today, that anger over federal intrusion continues, with county leaders planning to appeal to the federal court yet again over the new district boundaries. If they lose that appeal, the battle for political control of the county comes down to the race for commissioner in District 2.

    Wilfred Jones is optimistic that a Navajo candidate will qualify for the ballot and win that seat.

  • Wilfred Jones:

    We're in the 21st century here. We should be able to vote as we please and voice our opinion.

  • Tommy Brooksbank:

    If the Navajo win two of the three seats on the county commission, it would overturn more than a century of political domination by white residents.

    For Jones, who was born before Native Americans had the right to vote in Utah, it would be a personal, as well as historic, victory.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tommy Brooksbank in San Juan County, Utah.

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