SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Navajo Nation leaders say a Utah county is trying to keep a native candidate off the ballot during the first election since a federal judge ruled voting districts were drawn based on race.
Navajo Nation vice president, Jonathan Nez, said in statement the threat of possible criminal charges is an "example of the county's bad-faith attempt to undermine Navajo candidates and disenfranchise voters."
San Juan County, though, maintained Friday the investigation into whether a county commission candidate, Democrat Willie Grayeyes, lives on the Utah side of the nearby Arizona border is aimed at ensuring fair elections and isn't related to politics or race.
The dust-up comes as the largely Republican-led county fights back in court against new voting districts that they say unfairly carve up San Juan County's largest city of Blanding, about 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.
A federal judge ordered the districts be re-drawn after finding they minimized the voices of Navajo residents who make up half the county's voters. They tend to lean Democratic, and the newly drawn districts could give local candidates like Grayeyes a better shot at winning races during the upcoming election that will be the first under the new boundaries.
The voting-rights lawsuit came amid similar legal clashes over early voting access in Nevada, native language assistance in Alaska and voter ID laws in North Dakota. Advocates hope greater access to the ballot box could ultimately improve conditions in populations with huge disparities in health, education and economics.
County investigators looking into Grayeyes' candidacy in Utah want to see proof of residency like a utility bill, said San Juan County spokeswoman Natalie Callahan. "They're really looking for anything that would qualify where he lived," she said.
His lawyers counter that they've provided multiple documents, including satellite images of the remote Utah home where he's lived for 20 years while holding local leadership positions and an affidavit saying he's been registered to vote in San Juan County since he was 18. Many homes in the rural area don't have utility hookups and the lack of a local post office means many residents collect their mail from nearby Arizona.
Grayeyes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
He lives on the Navajo Nation, which overlaps with San Juan County and stretches into Arizona and New Mexico. The county says it opened the investigation after a citizen complaint questioned whether Grayeyes lives in Utah. Callahan said they've also found other evidence supporting the claim, though she didn't specify, citing the ongoing investigation.
Grayeyes also serves on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group that supported the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument to protect land that tribes consider sacred and is home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.
The land protections were fiercely opposed by largely Republican leaders in San Juan County and statewide. President Donald Trump ordered the monument downsized last year.