Navajo Nation election is still on for Tuesday, but without presidential race

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

CHINLE, ARIZ. — The Navajo Nation general election will still take place on Tuesday, but voters won't decide the race for president then.

On Friday, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered the Navajo Election Administration to split the general election ballot. That means voters will still cast ballots for several positions, including council delegates, but they will not vote for the presidency.

A special presidential election will be held at a later date that has not yet been determined.

In a press release issued after the high court adjourned on Friday, the election office stated all of the tribe's 110 polling locations will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday for voting.

"Although the position of the Navajo Nation presidential candidates will be on the election ballot, the Navajo Election Administration will not tally the results for this particular position per the Supreme Court order," the release states.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Herb Yazzie and Associate Justice Eleanor Shirley made their decision after listening to oral arguments in Chinle District Court in Chinle, Ariz.

The hearing was scheduled after former presidential candidates Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne filed a motion earlier this week. They asked the court to hold the election office and the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors in contempt of court for failing to comply with the high court's earlier approval of a writ of mandamus.

Yazzie said the writ "explicitly" ordered the election office to comply with the Navajo Office of Hearings and Appeals' final decision to disqualify Chris Deschene as a presidential candidate. Under Navajo election law, Council Delegate Russell Begaye, who finished third in the Aug. 26 primary election, should replace Deschene on the ballot.

At the time, the high court also ordered the election board to postpone the general election and instructed the office to reprint ballots without Deschene's name.

The election board refused to comply with the order.

Early voting started on Oct. 6, and ballots listed Deschene and Joe Shirley Jr. as the presidential candidates.

During Friday's hearing, Yazzie explained that when an official is found in contempt of court, it is a misdemeanor, which disqualifies that person from holding elected office and running for elected office.

The high court's ruling means the nine people who served on the election board are stripped of their authority.

The board includes Tom M. White Jr., LeNora Y. Fulton, Jonathan Tso, Wallace Charley, Ruth Watson, Harry D. Brown Sr., Norman L. Begay. Frannie George and Michael Coan.

In an interview after the hearing, Charley said the high court was "legislating" from the bench by removing the board members.

"I still say we did the right thing, speaking for the people. There's a fundamental law, a fundamental issue that the people stand on. That is the right to vote," Charley said.

The court determined that Edison Wauneka, executive director of the election office, was not in contempt after he told the court he and his staff would comply with the court's order.

"I have to comply with the law," he said, while standing in front of Yazzie and Shirley in court.

Speaking before the court, Wauneka said he was concerned that by postponing the entire general election, the office would lose the $102,000 spent to print 97,000 ballots.

He recommended the election be split to save some of the votes that were cast via early voting and absentee ballots.

Wauneka said an additional $285,000 would be needed to conduct a special election. Proposed legislation for that funding is waiting in the Office of the Speaker, he said.

In a separate hearing on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that Deschene must pay $3,207.33 to Tsosie and $2,923.50 to Whitethorne for legal costs and fees accrued from filing appeals last month with the high court.

The two men appealed the Office of Hearings and Appeals' dismissal of their grievances against Deschene. The grievances challenged his qualification for the presidency because he was not fluent in Navajo, a requirement for the presidency.

Tsosie and Whitethorne will also each receive $3,000 from the election board in a settlement reached for the legal fees associated with the writ of mandamus they filed with the high court.

After the hearings, Deschene told a large group of people gathered outside the court building in Chinle that he was "shocked" by the court's decision to have him pay Tsosie's and Whitethorne's legal fees.

He told the group that although his name will be removed from the ballot, people still need to exercise their right to vote.

"Stay positive. ... Two people and their attorneys cannot take away the voice of the people," Deschene said.

In a statement on Friday evening, Stacy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Deschene, said the former candidate has not conceded, but his campaign is "not active."

Fulton, who previously served on the election board, spoke after Deschene and echoed the importance of voting on Tuesday. She said the board worked to preserve that right during the recent court proceedings.

"Your voice was heard. It's good. You value your vote, and you value your option to go vote. The election hasn't stopped," Fulton said.

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.