Twenty-five years ago today, Sandoval County officials responded to a federal lawsuit filed to make it easier for Native American voters to understand and cast their ballots, setting in motion a drawn-out and sometimes contentious relationship to bring the county into compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Though increasing voter turnout was not an explicit goal of the county’s Native American Voting Rights Program, which resulted from the lawsuit, the number of voters has decreased in presidential elections and at least stagnated in midterm elections since 2006, according to a Journal review of New Mexico Secretary of State’s office data. The 2014 election was the first since 1988 that did not have federal monitors present in any of the precincts.
County officials said they have done what the federal government has asked to ease the voting process for Native Americans who are not proficient in English. The county has hired three full-time voting coordinators who help translate and explain the ballots to Towa, Navajo and Keres-speaking county residents, and they’ve made efforts to reach out to voters. But even if the county has complied with the federal lawsuit and an out-of-court agreement, county spokesman Sidney Hill said, it’s still up to individual voters to make it to the polls.
“This program is really designed to help ensure access to voting,” Hill said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for our folks to go out and hold people’s hands and take them to the voting booth.”
Sandoval County encompasses a number of Native American pueblos and reservations, with members of tribes including the Navajo, Jemez, Santa Ana, Kewa, Cochiti, San Felipe, Zia and Sandia.