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Navajo voters could decide change to language fluency requirements

One time Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene

One time Navajo presidential candidate Chris Deschene

Navajo voters could head to the polls soon but not to elect a president.

Instead, voters could determine through a referendum whether to amend the language fluency qualifications for the presidency and vice presidency.

The Navajo Nation Council approved a bill Friday to provide $317,891 in supplemental funding from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to the Navajo Election Administration to fund a special election in April.

Delegates also approved an amendment to the bill to have the appropriation first be used to fund a referendum question to modify a section of the presidential and vice presidential qualifications.

Under current tribal law, the president and vice president must fluently speak and understand Navajo, and read and write English.

The referendum would change that qualification to having presidential and vice presidential candidates speak and understand the Navajo and English languages, and their ability to do so would be determined by the Navajo voter when a ballot is cast.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie proposed the amendment during the special session Friday in the Council Chamber in Window Rock, Ariz.

In comments before the council, Tsosie said the referendum is a way to heal the tribe because establishing the qualification of a candidate’s fluency in the Navajo language would be determined by the people.

Tsosie did not offer a date for the referendum, although he advocated for it to occur before the special election to determine the presidency.

Last month, the election administration announced the special election to determine the presidency between candidates Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye for April 21.

The election administration made its decision days after the Feb. 20 order by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court to conduct the special election without further delay and with Shirley and Begaye’s names on the ballot.

The high court also ordered that the election to fill the six vacancies on the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors be held in conjunction with the presidential special election.

Delegate Dwight Witherspoon sponsored the bill to provide funding for the April 21 election and urged the delegates to support it in order to bring an end to the division created by the fluency issue.

Edison Wauneka, director of the election administration, sat next to Witherspoon during the presentation to the council.

Tsosie asked why the supplemental funding was not requested before the special election date was announced.

“With respect to Wauneka, it is irresponsible to call for an election when you have no money,” Tsosie said.

In response to a question that centered on the ballots for the special election, Wauneka said the ballots will be printed Monday and would be available in time for the absentee voting to start March 23.

“My position is to go through with the April 21 election,” Wauneka said, adding that if no supplemental funding is available, the election administration will use its operating budget.

“But we are planning to go through with this election,” he said.

Delegate Walter Phelps reminded the council that a veto is possible by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly or the council’s action could be challenged in the courts.

“Let’s be practical,” Phelps said.

Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd shared Phelps’ sentiments and said the council is “obligated” to fund the election.

After the council amendment was approved, Tsosie thanked his colleagues for its passage.

“We want a direction to go to, to follow, and the people are the best decision makers on a tough issue like this,” he said.

The resolution was signed by Speaker LoRenzo Bates and submitted to Shelly’s office Friday evening.

The president has 10 days to veto the resolution, issue a line-item veto or sign it into law.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.

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