Election boss: Postpone to allow absentee voting

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 24, 2010

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The Navajo Nation primary election may be moved from Aug. 3 to Aug. 24 or the 31st to allow absentee voters, particularly those overseas, enough time to get their ballots and return them by mail.

Navajo Election Administration Director Edison Wauneka said Wednesday that he'll ask the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors to seek permission from the Navajo Nation Supreme Court to postpone the primary for two to three weeks in order to allow for a full 30 days of absentee voting, the usual period. The board is scheduled to meet next on July 8, but Wauneka said he would ask the board to move the meeting up a week.

"If we continue with (the Aug. 3 election date), I'm just afraid that certain people will be left out the election process," Wauneka said. "My biggest concern is the people in the military. It seems like we're violating the rights of the people that give us that right to vote, free speech and choose leadership. To me, it would be almost unconstitutional to violate the rights of people that fight for our voting rights."

Absentee voting has grown in popularity in recent elections, election office records show. In the 2006 general election, just under 10 percent of the total vote was by absentee ballot - 7,091 out of about 65,000 total ballots cast.

Close to 2,000 absentee ballots were requested by mail, an indication the voter was probably too far away geographically to walk into an election office and pick one up. (Absentee ballots are also used by early voters who walk in to vote in the election office.)
During the 2008 off-year election, when many chapter races were held, there were 5,257 absentee ballots received, and 1,284 were requested by mail, according to Wauneka's office.

The Supreme Court in a May 28 decision affirmed the original election schedule, which includes holding the primary on Aug. 3. Wauneka said that if the court had asked, his office would have recommended deferring the primary for several weeks.

The election process has been delayed by repeated legal challenges, mainly related to the Dec. 15 vote to reduce the council from 88 to 24 seats, and Wauneka says there is not enough time before the original primary date to allow for absentee voting.

He noted that the Nov. 3 general election would not be impacted.


If the election board and Supreme Court approve Wauneka's request, absentee voting would begin on July 26 and end on Aug. 2.

The election code mandates that absentee voting is to begin immediately after the close of voter registration, which is 30 days before an election. The last day election officials can accept absentee ballots is the Friday before the election.

Voter registration for the Aug. 3 primary election is scheduled to close July 5, but absentee ballots won't be ready by then.

The main problem is getting the absentee ballots printed. Two challenges to candidates are underway, and until those are decided, the ballots can't be finalized for printing.

One challenge involves President Joe Shirley Jr., who wants to run for a third consecutive term in office. He's been disqualified because of the term limit, but has an appeal underway with the Office of Hearings and Appeals. The OHA decision is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court by the losing side, further delaying the final determination of whether or not Shirley's name is on the ballot.

In a separate challenge, council candidate JC Begay of Red Valley, N.M., is seeking to bump incumbent Phillip Harrison off the ballot on grounds that he is unfit. Harrison pleaded guilty to felony DWI last year, and tribal law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony within the past five years from running for office.

OHA has not yet announced a hearing date for Begay's challenge. That decision, too, could end up before the Supreme Court.

Further complicating the picture, council leaders meeting June 15 broached the idea of raising another obstacle to the election. They indicated they might challenge the reapportionment plan adopted June 11 by the election board. In doing so, they would ask the board to exercise its authority to suspend the election indefinitely until their challenge is resolved.

The election board and office have repeatedly affirmed the importance of absentee voting in the primary election, when fields of candidates are whittled from up to a dozen contenders down to two finalists.

At the June 17 meeting, the board reaffirmed its June 11 resolution adopting a reapportionment plan with 24 council districts.

The board also reaffirmed that the reapportionment does not include creating a sixth agency, and asked Shirley to make the necessary changes using data and map-making software in his office.

On Wednesday, Wauneka said Shirley had not produced a new map with the agreed-on "clarifications" so the election office will do it, and have it ready for publication in the Navajo Times' July 1 edition.

He emphasized that the new map would have five agencies and said the boundaries of the new council districts would not change from those adopted by the election board.

Wauneka also said the election board decided the most appropriate government entity to consider the question of whether to create a sixth agency would be the incoming council.

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