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OLJATO, Utah — Navajo Democrats in San Juan County spent the last eight months mobilizing to take advantage of a historic shift in their county’s politics. It paid off.
After Tuesday’s election, Native Americans will now hold the majority of the seats on the county commission — for the first time ever.
The county of only 15,000 residents has always been run by white Republicans. According to a federal judge, that’s because its district lines were drawn to make sure Native Americans, who outnumber whites here, never got control. Last year, the judge ordered the county to redraw the districts and put all of their seats up for grabs this November.
But shifting power isn’t as simple as just redrawing the map. The Democratic Party here barely existed two years ago, and they didn’t have much money or experience with which to win this election. So they had to get out the vote on the Navajo reservation to have any chance of taking advantage of the new district boundaries.
That wasn’t easy.
For one thing, there are a lot of barriers to voting on the reservation, among them, long drives to the polls, limited translation services for Navajo-speaking voters, and terrible mail service for those choosing to vote by absentee ballot. And after redistricting, the county has struggled to place the reservation’s isolated homes, which often don’t have formal addresses, in the right districts.
Voting rights advocate Tara Bennally started knocking on doors in February, registering Navajo voters and making sure they knew how and when to vote. She says that, given the long history of disenfranchisement, it was hard to convince people here that their votes mattered.
“Having to break down that barrier has been a challenge for me, especially going door to door and saying, Hey, there’s a change going on here and we need to be a part of that change,” Benally told VICE News.
Votes are still being counted, but the latest results indicate a victory for the Navajo candidates.
VICE News went to San Juan County to follow the Democrats’ ground game in the last weeks before the election.