Though she frequently drifts in and out of cell service, Dalene Redhorse makes sure to update her voicemail.
“Wear a mask, register to vote and vote on Nov. 3,” her voicemail message instructs.
When she can answer a call, expect bumps and static as her truck navigates the unmaintained dirt roads on the Navajo Nation — she’s had to get her car aligned three times in the past year — on the way to register Americans hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic to vote as a field organizer for the Rural Utah Project.
Redhorse grew up on the Navajo Nation, where her parents would stay up through the night watching results come through on their grainy, nine-inch black-and-white television each Election Day.
This year, Redhorse saw her father, Peter Redhorse, and grandfather, John Shorty, die within days of each other from COVID-19. It strengthened her resolve to register fellow Diné people to vote and wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Their biggest question when I’d tell them to register was: why?” Redhorse said in an interview with the Moab Sun News. “They think that our votes don't count, that nobody cares what we think. That we don’t matter to the world or to the people in office.”
Utah’s portion of the Navajo Nation lies in San Juan County, which stretches from the Colorado state line to Navajo Mountain. For decades, elections have been disturbed by repeated lawsuits, criminal accusations and Voting Rights Act violations. In recent years, the ACLU of Utah sued San Juan County in 2016 for violating the Voting Rights Act and in 2018, Willie Grayeyes, an Indigenous San Juan County Commissioner candidate, was removed from the ballot by San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson. Ultimately, Grayeyes won both a lawsuit and his election, cementing the first majority-Navajo San Juan County Commission in history.
An electioneering complaint against Nielsen is currently still under legal review, after court watchers discovered that Nielson distributed partisan election materials inside polling locations in 2019.
Add this distrust to a pandemic that ravaged the rural Navajo Nation, where voting by mail is made difficult by the lack of post offices and voting in-person requires upwards of six-hour drives under normal circumstances, and Redhorse’s work is an uphill battle.
“I tell them that this is our nation, this is our America and we are going to preserve it for our children,” said Redhorse. “Your vote does count. You are people, you are legal, you are American — no matter what.”
A history of legal challenges
“Our voting rights campaign is aimed at reducing barriers to the ballot box, especially for groups, populations and communities that have been historically disenfranchised,” said Niki Venugopal, the ACLU of Utah’s first voting rights coordinator.
In 2016, San Juan County switched to only mail-in voting, leaving only one in-person polling station in Monticello, Utah. The ACLU of Utah sued San Juan County in 2016 on behalf of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, and the groups reached a settlement on Feb. 21, 2018, with the county pledging to provide in-person bi-lingual voter assistance on the Navajo Nation 28 days before every election. At least three polling places on the reservation must be open on Election Day, and the county must continue to make Navajo-language voting information available.
Justin Lee, the Utah Director of Elections, has been in talks with the county to ensure the settlement’s terms are upheld.
“In San Juan County, and this year with COVID-19, one of the things that we want to make sure of is that the settlement agreement is still in place — that there are still in-person locations,” said Lee. “San Juan County has been working well with us to make sure that happens.”
With this year’s election taking place in the midst of a pandemic that has devastated the Navajo Nation — 10,728 total positive cases reported by the Navajo Nation Department of Health as of Oct. 13 — the 2018 settlement will have more relevance than ever.
Registering residents to vote
On her way to a potential voter’s home on the reservation, Redhorse plowed through sagebrush, dirt and mud all without any GPS guidance. Redhorse makes a conscious effort to remain COVID-safe, wearing a mask, face shield and gloves while distributing voter registration forms encased within a Ziploc bag.
“It’s well worth it,” said Redhorse after sending a video of her truck bumping across the desert landscape.
“I remember this older guy was telling me that nobody has ever taken interest in his voter registration, so he didn't think it mattered,” she continued. “But when we were there, we got him registered according to his plus code.”
Plus code addresses, which are similar to street addresses, are a new feature to most living on the Navajo Nation. They enable residents in remote locations to order and receive packages, access emergency services and, most importantly for Redhorse, register to vote or get a mail-in ballot.
RUP partnered with Google Developers to assign these coded addresses in 2019.
Voter registration is only half the battle. While Redhorse and organizations like RUP work to inform people of their voting rights and responsibilities, the county government and the ACLU of Utah are working together to ensure that those votes actually count.
ACLU of Utah poll watchers will monitor the goings-on in polling places throughout the state, and particularly San Juan County.
“We recognize that we can come to a settlement agreement with the county, but that we also need to make sure that it plays out well on the ground,” said Venugopal.
There’s no shortage of logistics for poll watchers to address at any location, said Venugopal.
“We think poll watchers should be normal everywhere as an important tool for democratic elections,” Venugopal continued. “We don't send them because we're expecting something to go wrong; we send them because they’re an important oversight of our democratic process.”
Working together, Redhorse, Venugopal, Lee and their associated organizations aim to make sure that Navajo-speaking and Indigenous voters have equal, easy, fair access to the ballot.
San Juan County election ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 2 for mail-in voting. Voters should bring identification if voting in-person; if no ID is provided, voters may fill out a provisional ballot and have their identification verified by Nov. 9. Early voting times and locations and other relevant voter information can be found on the San Juan County Clerk’s website.