Navajo Board of Election Supervisors have more questions for the tribe's attorney general

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — Navajo Board of Election Supervisors members are continuing to ask questions about how to comply with a Navajo Nation Supreme Court order to take a presidential candidate off the ballot.

Last week, the high court ordered the Navajo Election Administration to comply with tribal law and replace presidential candidate Chris Deschene's name on the general election ballot with Navajo Nation Council Delegate Russell Begaye, who finished third in the primary election, and to reprint the ballot to reflect the change.

The decision stemmed from a grievance filed against Deschene by two former presidential candidates alleging he does not speak the Navajo language, which is a qualification for the presidency.

Deschene was disqualified by the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals on Oct. 9 after refusing to participate in a test intended to measure his fluency but remains on the ballot as early voting continues.

On Monday, Navajo Nation Attorney General Harrison Tsosie appeared at an election board special meeting in Window Rock, Ariz., to talk about the court order.

Tsosie said the information he was going to provide the election board and election office was "privileged" and said further discussion would need to take place in executive session.

The board spent approximately two hours behind closed doors but reconvened with additional questions for the attorney general, which they expect to be answered by Friday.

Board members expressed concern about the legal ramifications if they stop the election, especially since early voting started on Oct. 6.

Since the Supreme Court ordered that the ballot be reprinted, the board questioned whether early votes cast in the non-presidential races would be nullified. And finally, the board wanted to know what the procedure would be for Begaye to select a candidate for vice president.

Presidential candidates have up to five days after the primary election to name a vice president, according to tribal law.

"In order to implement the order, we have to have these questions answered," election board member Jonathan Tso said.

Election board vice chairman Tom White Jr. said the election would continue in the meantime.

Shortly after reconvening in open session, election board member LeNora Y. Fulton read a statement that centered on the board's authority to protect the voting rights of the Navajo people.

"The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors has a responsibility and obligation to ensure that all election processes are done in a fair and impartial matter, free of corruption, intimidation and fraud," she said.

Election board member Norman L. Begay repeated that the board is protecting the right to vote and said, "this board does not favor candidate Shirley nor candidate Deschene, let's make that clear."

During the board's executive session, people waited outside the conference room and talked about a council resolution that was sent to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on Friday.

The resolution would keep the current Navajo language fluency requirements for candidates seeking tribal office in place and would add that the language proficiency is determined by voters.

It would go into effect immediately and apply to candidates in this year's election, if Shelly signs it into law.

Deswood Tome, special adviser to Shelly, said no decision about the bill has been made.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.