FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The elections director on the Navajo Nation under threat of a contempt charge said he will scrap Tuesday’s election for tribal president and hold the contest at a later date.
The announcement Friday came amid a dispute over a requirement that presidential candidates be fluent in Navajo. Candidate Chris Deschene was disqualified from the race for the tribe’s top elected post after refusing to show he met the requirement and ordered removed from the ballot.
Tuesday’s election still features races for tribal lawmakers, election board and school board, and Navajos will be voting for other county, state and federal offices. Deschene’s name will appear on the tribal ballot, but the presidential tally won’t be released. The Navajo Election Administration said it would be too costly to reprint some 100,000 ballots and recalibrate the voting machines. Early voting ended Friday.
The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors had remained adamant about holding the presidential election as originally scheduled.
The tribe’s high court held the board in contempt Friday – basically stripping them of their posts – for defying a court order to postpone the presidential election, remove Deschene’s name and replace him with the third-place finisher from the primary election.
The justices gave Edison Wauneka, director of the Navajo Election Administration, an opportunity to end what they called a government crisis by asking if he could separate out the presidential election and proceed without interference from the board.
“In principle, I do agree with the board,” Wauneka responded. “But in my responsibility as a director, it’s almost mandatory that I have to comply.”
The justices ordered the board not to interfere with Wauneka’s office, which it typically oversees. They said Wauneka should declare the supervisors’ positions vacant and disqualify them from any elected offices they are seeking because of the contempt finding.
Board member Lenora Fulton, who was seeking a fourth term, said the supervisors were aware that was a possibility.
“We accomplished what we set out to do as a united board, and if it means being stripped of our duties and not being able to run for office for another five years, it’s worth it to me,” she said. “I’d do it again. A person’s right to vote is important, and we were not willing to invalidate that.”
Deschene was ordered on Friday to pay attorneys’ fees for two former presidential candidates, Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne, who filed grievances alleging he lied when he attested to speaking fluent Navajo.
Whitethorne’s attorney, Justin Jones, said the tribal government has a duty to present a valid, qualified candidate to voters.
“That’s the only way an election can be authentic, can be right,” he said after Friday’s hearing in Chinle that was streamed live on the Internet.
Deschene finished second to former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. in the primary election in August. Navajo Nation Council Delegate Russell Begaye is expected to replace Deschene. Begaye said Friday that he is waiting for word from Wauneka’s office before resuming a campaign. Shirley said he would take a weeklong break from courting voters, then “continue along and do the best we can.”
Wauneka said a special election for the presidency could cost $285,000, but a date hasn’t been set. He said previously that it would have to be at least 60 days from Tuesday’s general election.
The dispute over fluency has touched all branches of the Navajo Nation government and prompted a discussion over the role the Navajo language plays in the tribe’s culture. More people speak the Navajo language than any other single American Indian language.
Navajo President Ben Shelly this week vetoed legislation that would have let voters decide if candidates – including those in the 2014 election – are proficient in the Navajo language. Deschene considers a pending bill to override that veto as an option to stay in the race. It’s unclear whether the bill could nullify the Supreme Court’s orders.
Deschene said he was disappointed in the latest ruling.
The high court has ruled that fluency in Navajo is a reasonable requirement for the presidency and pleaded with tribal members to keep alive the Navajo way of life through the language, prayers and songs.
Steve Boos, an attorney for the election board and the election administration, said fluency should be a qualification for the Navajo people to decide and argued the presidential election should go forward under a traditional tribal law that says Navajos have the right to choose their leaders.