Early voting ending for Navajo Nation general election

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — After a tumultuous election season, early walk-in voting for the Navajo Nation general election concludes at 5 p.m. Friday at the five agency offices for the Navajo Election Administration.

Early voting started on Oct. 6 and continued even after presidential candidate Chris Deschene was disqualified and the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered the election office to reprint ballots without Deschene's name.

Despite the court order, the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors has refused to remove Deschene's name and delay the election, insisting on keeping it on Nov. 4.

That noncompliance is at the center of a motion that could hold the board and the election office in contempt of court. The Supreme Court will meet Friday to discuss that motion.

The Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals disqualified Deschene from running on Oct. 9 after he refused to participate in a test intended to measure his fluency in the Navajo language. To qualify for the presidency, a candidate must fluently speak and understand Navajo and read and write English.

In a statement posted on his campaign's Facebook page on Wednesday, Deschene wrote he is "proficient" in the Navajo language and called the test "flawed," "unacceptable" and "designed to divide the nation."

"Many of you have asked why I didn't take the fluency test. It's time for me to tell you. I will not allow any member of our nation to be singled out. To be set up for failure. To be tested unfairly," he wrote.

Earlier this month, the tribe's high court ordered that Deschene's name be replaced with Navajo Nation Council Delegate Russell Begaye, who finished third in the primary election.

Since the start of early voting, about 10,000 ballots have either been cast or mailed to people who requested absentee ballots, said Edison Wauneka, executive director of the election office. About 97,000 ballots were printed for the general election, costing about $102,000, he said.

If the court decides to postpone the election, Wauneka said he has drafted a budget to pay for new ballots and additional costs associated with a new election. He declined to provide further details.

On Thursday, people continued visiting the Fort Defiance Agency election office in Window Rock, Ariz., which is located in a two-story building adjunct to the Quality Inn.

Sample ballots were posted in the hallway, and each one displayed a candidate's name, photo and the office he or she is seeking.

Listed under the presidential race was Deschene and his running mate, Fannie L. Atcitty, and Joe Shirley Jr. and his running mate, Dineh Benally.

Friday, the Supreme Court will have a hearing at 10 a.m. in Chinle District Court in Chinle, Ariz., on the motion that could hold the election board and office in contempt of court. Attorneys for former presidential candidates Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne filed the motion earlier this week.

Though he has not conceded, Deschene paused his campaign on Tuesday after President Ben Shelly vetoed a bill that would have allowed voters to determine a candidate's fluency in the Navajo language.

The future of Deschene's campaign depends on a "handful of variables," including the outcome of the Supreme Court decision and the actions of the election board, election office and tribal council, said Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Deschene.

In Shelly's veto message to the council, he wrote that the bill, which the tribal council passed last week, was only intended to help Deschene, and tribal law should be upheld.

Proponents of the bill said it aligned the language requirement with the section of Diné Fundamental Law that declares the right and freedom of the people to choose their leadership.

Also on Tuesday, Delegate Leonard Tsosie introduced legislation to override the veto. That bill was posted on the council's website for a five-day public comment period, which ends Sunday.

As of Thursday, seven delegates have signed a petition calling for a special meeting for the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee at 9 a.m. Monday, followed by a special session for the council at 1 p.m.

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