SALT LAKE CITY — Voters rejected a ballot proposition in Utah that reignited a fierce dispute over Navajo voting rights and could have led to the expansion of a three-person county commission controlled by the tribe.
The measure lost by just 153 votes in San Juan County, which overlaps Navajo Nation, according to results posted Friday.
The campaign highlighted long-simmering tensions between Native Americans and white residents who live on ranches and in towns laid out along neat grids by settlers belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After two Navajo Democrats won seats on the commission in 2018, Republicans promoted the initiative that would have launched a one-year study aimed at making changes to county government.
The Navajos won the seats in the first general election held after a U.S. judge decided racially gerrymandered districts illegally minimized the voices of Navajo voters who hold a slim majority of the population in San Juan County.
Blanding Mayor Joe Lyman, the sponsor of the initiative, had long sought a five-member commission to spread the workload and provide a more representative voice to residents by creating smaller districts
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and others called the measure an attempt to undermine Native American voices.
"The people have spoken loud and clear - it's time to put this issue to rest," Nez said of the election results. "The defeat of this measure should encourage all county officials to move forward with more meaningful initiatives like the improvement of school bus routes, stimulating the economy, creating jobs, and many others issues that will benefit all county residents."
Nez urged everyone in the county to put their differences aside to work together.
Tara Benally, a district chairwoman for the San Juan County Democratic Party and opponent of the measure, echoed that sentiment.
"They feel like they are powerless, but that's truly not the case," Benally said about members of the tribe. "We may have our differences, but we all have the same issues."
The county is nearly the size of New Jersey and contains picturesque Monument Valley.
There are a handful of primarily Democratic communities on the Navajo Nation, which sprawls into Arizona and New Mexico. The county's larger, mostly non-Native American towns of Blanding and Monticello are heavily Republican.
Lyman told The Salt Lake Tribune that many residents feel disenfranchised under the new court-ordered districts.
"However, if the people vote to accept the current districts at least we have heard the voice of the people," he said.