Delegates may try to suspend election

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 17, 2010

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Navajo Nation Council delegates leading the five agency caucus signaled this week that they may challenge the reapportionment plan adopted June 11 by the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors.

As part of such an action, they may ask the board to suspend the upcoming council election indefinitely until their challenge is resolved.

In a caucus meeting Tuesday, the five delegates presented a letter to Edison Wauneka, director of the Navajo Election Administration, explaining their concerns about the reapportionment plan that established 24 voting districts in place of the 88 districts in the current council.

Tribal members voted Dec. 15, 2009, to reduce the council from 88 to 24 members, and the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered immediate implementation of the redistricting in a May 28 decision.

The caucus' letter was also addressed to Larry Biltah, chair of the election board, who was not at the meeting.

"In the best interest of the people, the NBOES can take an action to suspend the election indefinitely until such time all election related documents, etc., are in proper order," the letter stated.

The letter also asked why election board went into executive session to discuss the proposed reapportionment plan during its meeting June 11.

"It was not a personnel or litigation matter but a matter that directly affects the whole Navajo Nation and its people and should be discussed openly," the caucus leaders wrote.

They are requesting copies of the map and population numbers that board used to approve the reapportionment plan, and wanted to know if the data used also counts Navajos living off the reservation.

The five also questioned if there is enough time for absentee balloting in the primary election.

The letter asks what recourse there is for candidates who filed their candidacy papers prior to the Supreme Court decision and subsequent reapportionment, should they now find themselves in a different district.

The letter was signed by caucus leaders Young Jeff Tom (Eastern Agency), Leslie Dele (Western Agency), Phil Harrison (Northern Agency), Andy Ayze (Central Agency) and Orlanda Smith-Hodge (Fort Defiance Agency).

In his address to the caucus Tuesday, Wauneka said the election board went into executive session because the supervisors questioned the involvement of Leonard Tsosie (Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake) in providing legal counsel to the president on the reapportionment plan.

Wauneka also said the election board was concerned because Shirley's revised map showed five agencies, while an accompanying chart of chapter population figures was divided into six agencies, as he had originally proposed. The new map did not show agency boundaries, only voting districts.

"What we were told is that the board approved the plan without the numbers," he said.

As for absentee voting, that situation remains uncertain, he said.

Tsosie, one of about 30 other delegates looking on while the meeting took place in the council chambers, attempted to rebut Wauneka's comment about the reason election board went into executive session. However, Tom, who was chairing the meeting, did not acknowledge him before the meeting ended.

Afterward, Tsosie said he was not the reason why the election board went into executive session.

"As a board, none of them raised that point and for Mr. Wauneka to come here and say that they said they went into executive session because Mr. Tsosie is acting like a lawyer, I didn't even sit with the president," he said. "Mr. Wauneka is a liar."

Michelle Dotson, Shirley's legal counsel, sat with the president during presentation of the reapportionment plan, Tsosie said.

Several of the delegates observing the caucus meeting again voiced concerns they have raised in the past about council reduction.

Elmer Milford (Fort Defiance) said he was afraid to submit his candidate application, along with the $500 filing fee, on Friday because there was no reapportionment plan in place at that time, so he was not sure which chapters he would be campaigning to represent.

Both Katherine Benally (Dennehotso) and Thomas Walker (Birdsprings/Leupp/Tolani Lake) reminded the delegates that voters in the Western Agency opposed the reduction. (The reduction, which was endorsed by as much as a 2-to-1 margin in the other agencies, lost by 149 votes in the Western Agency, 3,445 to 3,296.)

"That should not be ignored, that should not be dismissed as insignificant or small or minor or just a few handful of people who are objecting," Walker said.

(Voters in 12 of the 18 Western Agency chapters voted against reduction, while those in the two largest population centers, Tuba City and Kayenta, were among six chapters in the agency that favored reduction.)

Davis Filfred (Aneth/Mexican Water/Red Mesa) expressed concern about dividing the council's 11 standing committees between 24 delegates and how effective those committees would be in providing oversight to the government's divisions.

"I believe that when it becomes 24 delegates I think it will limit that oversight," Filfred said.

Lorenzo Bedonie (Hardrock/Piñon) was worried that if the current 88 delegates do not reform the legislative branch before the new 24 take control, it will create problems.

"If the present 88 council does not prepare the Navajo Nation Council operation it will cause problems for the 24," Bedonie said.

Leonard Tsosie agreed with Bedonie's comment about working on the transition process.

"We should get ready and use the resources to help out the new 24, whoever it's going to be that will come in, that our constituents will elect," he said.

Tsosie suggested the caucus send a letter to the election office, asking officials there to explore the possibility of voting by Internet as a way to help voters who live off the reservation, such as military personnel.

"We need to ask the election administration to do this election in such a way that it gets to as many Navajo people as possible," Tsosie said.

However, Wauneka rejected the notion of online voting, saying that due to security concerns, online voting will not be available for the election.

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