On a starkly beautiful stretch of U.S. 191 outside of Bluff, you could easily drive right past a dirt road stretching into the distance.
Take that turn and drive miles down the dry, rutted track with plumes of dust following and you reach a group of modest homes.
“You found us!” says Dalene Redhorse, emerging from her home.
Redhorse knows well how difficult navigating homes on Navajo Nation lands outside of the city of Bluff can be. As a field organizer with the Rural Utah Project, she and a handful of others have visited over 6,000 structures visible on Google Maps on a quest to provide everyone with one critical piece of information that often goes overlooked elsewhere: an address.
“I’ve driven hundreds of miles,” Redhorse says with a laugh, “and sometimes I’ve only found an old sheep shack.”
But many times, Redhorse and her team have found homes where San Juan County residents are living without a street address.
“We’re going to end up addressing just over 2,500 homes,” said TJ Ellerbeck, executive director of the Rural Utah Project. “Every single inhabited home or business on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, and also parts of Bluff.”
Located just to the south of Grand County, San Juan County has a population of 14,413 people as of the 2000 Census. A majority of the county’s population is Native American and the lower portion of the county is largely Navajo Nation land. Outside of the towns of Monticello, Blanding and Bluff, the population is geographically spread out in rural areas that largely lack traditional addresses.
That official address is a crucial piece of documentation for many services, Ellerbeck notes.
“EMS (Emergency Medical Services), mail delivery, business licenses,” Ellerbeck listed. “We started this project because of voter registration, but it goes so much further than that.”
The Rural Utah Project is working with Open Location Code to generate “plus codes,” which work to identify specific locations in the world on a grid. The system works just like latitude and longitude but with a simpler, easier to use code. A standard plus code identifies a specific area about the size of one half of a basketball court.
The open-source project was helmed by developers at Google and has been instituted in places like Calcutta and Somalia for public health services and mail delivery.
“Google is printing the physical signs and they’ve provided a lot of logistics help,” Ellerbeck said.
The location information collected will be shared with the Navajo Nation Addressing Authority, which is also working to provide regular, traditional street addresses on the reservation.
“You can give somebody your code, and they can just put it in Google Maps,” said Drew Cooper, deputy director at the Rural Utah Project. “It’s extremely simple and works easily to find an exact location.”
On the reservation, Dalene Redhorse delivers a new address sign to Kevin Blackhorse, explaining that the code on it will be acceptable for voter registration and many other uses.
Blackhorse reports that for many forms of identification and taxes, he’s been drawing maps of where he lives in place of providing an exact address.
Redhorse switches smoothly between English and Navajo as she explains the addressing system, slipping in small jokes in Navajo that make Blackhorse laugh.
Still, it’s clear that she feels passionate about the impact of her work as she confirms his voter registration.
“Last year, when we were doing registration, many people were not in the right district,” she said to Blackhorse, adding a firm statement to Blackhorse: “It’s important.”
Voters’ exact location became particularly important in San Juan County after a federal judge ruled in late 2017 that the commissioner and school board district boundaries were unconstitutionally drawn to disenfranchise the county’s Navajo population. The vast majority of Navajo residents were placed within one voting district, virtually ensuring voting blocks leaned towards a white majority on the San Juan County Commission.
The precinct boundaries were redrawn to better reflect the county’s population.
San Juan County hadn’t redrawn its voting districts since 1986. Many people in rural areas who had previously registered to vote had been assigned vague address locations, most based on rough estimates or hand-drawn maps.
For years, clerks registering citizens to vote had “just identified people’s locations as in a place that got them in the right precinct,” said Ellerbeck, “but when the redistricting happened, those people got moved into a new precinct when they shouldn’t have been” due to the inaccurate locations and shifting boundaries.
This inaccuracy has serious consequences, said Ellerbeck.
“Quite a few people got the wrong ballot for school board or county commission last year,” he said. While it wasn’t possible to know exactly how many people received the wrong ballot, the organization surveyed 681 voters, of which 585 were registered at a place not accurately reflecting where their home is located.
Of those, Ellerbeck said, 127 people were inaccurately placed in the wrong voting district.
“That’s one out of five people who got the wrong ballot and wasn’t able to vote properly,” Ellerbeck said. That’s a stunning number in a county where one election last year was decided by just 19 votes, he pointed out
When Rural Utah Project workers realized that people were receiving the wrong ballots, they raised the issue with San Juan County Clerk John David Nielson.
“He was really unconcerned about the problem, and as far as I know, took no steps to address it” before the primary election, said Ellerbeck.
While the Rural Utah Project was able to correct many misplaced voters’ registrations, there are still many who are misidentified.
“That’s why we’ve launched this whole addressing program, to get these registrations fixed before the 2020 election,” Ellerbeck said.
“Like, what people?” Nielson responded on a call with the Moab Sun News when asked about citizens placed into the wrong voting districts.
“People in Blanding or Monticello, that probably hasn’t been an issue,” Nielson said, commenting that it was a problem on the Navajo Nation reservation.
“This is something that’s being worked on,” Nielson said, reporting that the Clerk’s Office has hired a liaison to work on updating voter’s location information. Navajo liaisons, polling places on or near the reservation and a Navajo language ballot are requirements of a settlement between the county and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission in a 2018 voting rights lawsuit.
Nielson said he had never had any interaction with any efforts to provide accurate addresses to those on the Navajo Nation outside of his own office’s efforts.
The clerk’s denial puzzles Ellerbeck.
“We met at his office to discuss what to do with the incorrect ballots that were about to go out and what to do to remedy the problem,” Ellerbeck said, “so I’m surprised to hear he says he hasn’t heard about it.”
Ellerbeck reported that Nielson attended a meeting about the issue with the Utah State Director of Elections Justin Lee, members of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, Navajo Nation officials, and Rural Utah Project leadership among others last May.
When contacted by the Moab Sun News, Lee confirmed that the extensive meeting took place though he said he left before Nielson was in attendance.
“Rural addressing is an important issue elsewhere in the state, but it’s a huge issue in San Juan County,” Lee commented.
Ellerbeck said that the hundreds of corrected registrations using plus codes have all been accepted by the Clerk’s Office, and he has heard that liaisons employed by the office are also using the codes to correctly register voters.
Last year, Nielson was rebuked by a federal judge on charges of backdating documents outside of his legal authority to remove Willie Greyeyes, a Navajo candidate for the San Juan County Commission, from the ballot. Grayeyes was ultimately put back on the November 2018 ballot and won the election.
Then-Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald declined to file criminal charges against the Nielson, stating that he could not find a criminal statute that applied in state election code or the Utah criminal code. Fitzgerald indicated that he believed the issue to be more with a lack of professional knowledge than ill-intent on the part of the clerk.
“A lot of this probably could have been addressed by the County Clerk’s office,” Ellerbeck said while acknowledging that the problem of addressing on the reservation “really goes a lot deeper than that.”
“These addresses are a start,” says Redhorse, ready to travel to the next home where she’ll deliver an address plate. “We can start working on better medical access, better social services. In-home dialysis for our elders. Packages being delivered. Getting wifi and satellite.”
Redhorse has heard the excitement from people about the possibility of getting these services, of addresses making life a little simpler for those that must drive a full day just to get to a post office box.
“But what I’m most excited about is that this makes our community more visible,” she says.
“For a long time, our community has been treated as invisible, easy to ignore,” Redhorse says, gesturing at the expanse of land meeting the horizon.
“People who drive through here on the highway think this is a wilderness, that no one lives here. But we’re here. We’ve been here.”
Extreme challenges to voter registration in San Juan County