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Navajo voters to weigh in on language fluency requirements

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors has approved the ballot language for the July 21 referendum election on the language fluency requirement for the tribal president and vice president.

Election board members approved the ballot language in a vote of 8-0 during a May 28 meeting in Window Rock, Ariz.

The referendum asks Navajo voters to amend the language fluency qualifications so a candidate’s ability to speak and understand Navajo and English would be determined by voters when they cast ballots.

If voters approve the referendum, it would apply to the 2018 presidential election and subsequent elections, according to the election board resolution.

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

The language fluency issue took center stage during the recent election after former presidential candidate Chris Deschene was disqualified by a default judgment after he refused to take a test to determine his ability to speak Navajo fluently.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said in a press release that the referendum measure will “empower” the Navajo people to determine their future leadership.

“I thank the board members for their support and also to my council colleagues who responded to the voices of the Navajo people and pushed this referendum forward,” Bates said in the release.

In April, the Navajo Election Administration scheduled the referendum election for June 9.

Edison Wauneka, executive director of the election administration, said on Tuesday that the election date was changed because the council initially wanted to place four additional questions on the ballot.

During the May 19 special session, the council tabled the bills containing the four questions, he said, so they will not appear on the ballot.

“So there will be just one item on the ballot,” Wauneka said, adding that the July election date abides by the tribe’s election code.

The four questions would have asked voters to weigh in on funding several projects and on making changes to the Judicial Branch.

The council approved the referendum election on March 13, and then-Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed it into law on March 16.

The council’s resolution included supplying $317,891 in supplemental funding from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance to pay for the election.

Wauneka said the funding was received and will be used to pay for costs associated with the election.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 21.

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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