At the crux of the debate surrounding the San Juan County redistricting is the loaded term gerrymandering.
The word “gerrymandering” comes from an instance in Massachusetts in 1812 in which Governor Elbridge Gerry produced irregular, salamander-shaped boundary maps in an attempt to exclude certain voters in his district.
In legal terms, gerrymandering occurs when voting districts are drawn in order to concentrate electoral dominance for a specific group of people. This also entails diluting the voting power of minority populations.
“The purposes of gerrymandering are to maximize the number of legislative seats that can be won by the political party in charge of redrawing the district boundaries, and to create ‘safe’ seats for the party’s incumbent legislators,” John Mackenzie of the University of Delaware said in his report on gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is usually accomplished by either “cracking” or “packing” voters. “Cracking” occurs when voters are split up in an attempt to dilute their voting power, while “packing” is when a certain voter group is placed into a singular area or district, so that the group only has the majority in that one location.
In the case of Navajo Nation v. San Juan County, the Navajo Nation sued the County Commission shortly after it redistricted in 2011, on the grounds that the county violated voting rights acts and unconstitutionally drew lines based on race.
A federal court determined the Navajo Nation adequately proved that racial gerrymandering occurred.
In the 2017 U.S. Census, Native Americans made up the majority, 50.4 percent, of all San Juan County residents. Meanwhile, Native Americans only made up thirty percent of the former commission Districts 1 and 2. District 3 consisted of more than 92 percent Native Americans.
An expert appointed by the court found that the large concentration of Natives in District 3 suggests that the group was “packed” into the district. The court agreed this “packing” made it impossible for Native Americans to ever even have a shot at winning another commission district besides District 3.
“The dramatic concentration of Native Americans in District 3 is not an accident — it is the County Commission’s direct intention,” the court documents state.
The court ruled that the Navajo Nation and other plaintiffs proved that race was a “dominant and controlling consideration” when the county drew its district lines in 1986, and these lines were kept in place even after a minor revision of voting precincts in 2011.
The defendant, San Juan County, tried to argue in an appeal that the newly drawn boundaries were an instance of legislative political gerrymandering. In other words, that the new lines were drawn to ensure a Democratic win.
According to the court documents, however, there was not sufficient evidence proving that Navajo voters prefer Democratic candidates, that the court had “discriminatory intent,” or that there was an “issue of illegal packing of non-Navajo.”