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Navajo Election is April 21! Maybe?

Navajo Election is April 21! Maybe?
March 01
12:29 2015
Window Rock Rock 1   mpr

Things are happening in Window Rock

By John Christian Hopkins

Attention, Navajo voters: Circle April 21 on your calendar as the date to cast your ballot for the next Navajo Nation president.

But keep the marker handy, in case you need to cross it out. Again.

The wacky melody that has been the 2014 presidential elections may have reached its crescendo this week, but the final notes are still to be played out.

Attorneys representing Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne have asked the Navajo Supreme Court to vacate a bill signed into law by President Ben Shelly three days ago, and order the April 21 contest between Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye to proceed posthaste.

The complaint – filed by attorneys David Jordan and Justin Jones – also asked the high court to order the tribal council not to interfere in the process or remove Navajo Election Administration Director Edison Wauneka from office as long as he is complying with the court’s order.

Wauneka, who is caught in the middle of this political tug-o-war, is hoping the court will issue an opinion by Friday, so he can order ballots printed. If that happens, early voting could begin next week and the April 21 election can be held on time.

But that’s a big “if.”

Although Chief Justice Herb Yazzie had previously ordered an April 21 election between Begaye and Shirley, the 22nd and 23rd Navajo Nation Councils thumbed their noses at the high court and continued to pass bills that would circumvent the court’s orders.

The latest occurred March 13 when the council passed legislation to conduct a nationwide referendum on the issue of language fluency – prior to any presidential election.

Navajo President Ben Shelly signed the bill into law Monday.

On Tuesday, Wauneka put the election on hold pending any appeals. The appeal was filed Wednesday.

The Supreme Court should respect the council’s decision, said Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored the referendum bill.

Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates was adamant that the presidential contest would be held after a referendum vote on language qualifications.

In a statement to the media, the speaker’s office accused Tsosie and Whitethorne of trying to “take away the people’s right to decide this important issue.”

Last year the council raised filing fees for presidential candidates, looking to weed out the less serious contenders. Instead, the primary featured 17 presidential hopefuls. In the primary, the top vote-getter was former two-term president Shirley; the runner-up was LeChee native Chris Clark Deschene.

Following the primary, Tsosie and Whitethorne filed a complaint with the Office of Hearings and Appeals, claiming that Deschene was not fluent in Navajo, as required by law.

The OHA dismissed the complaint, but it was reinstated on appeal by the Supreme Court. When the OHA scheduled a fluency test, Deschene refused to cooperate, repeating the same Navajo phrase for each question.

With no other option, the OHA disqualified Deschene and replaced him with third-place finisher Russell Begaye.

But there was a groundswell of support for Deschene and the candidate’s supporters either insisted that Deschene was fluent, or didn’t care. To them, it became a simple matter of the people’s right to choose their own leader.

A grassroots group, the Voters Rights Coalition, has been drumming up support across the Navajo Nation, trying to get Deschene back on the ballot or allow for a write-in candidacy. The coalition is also advocating for the removal of Chief Justice Yazzie.

The council has sidestepped the court’s orders by pushing forward with legislation to allow write-in candidates, to waive the fluency requirement or hold a completely new election between the 17 original candidates – and anyone else that paid the filing fee and wanted to run now.

The entire election is back in the court’s hands.

It could invalidate the referendum law and order the NEA to proceed with the election using whatever funds it still has. When those funds run out, the NEA could then seek supplemental funding to complete the election.

The high court could also hold the Navajo Council in contempt and remove delegates from office for interfering with the court’s orders.

Whatever it does, Wauneka said, it has to be done by Friday to hold an April 21 vote.


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