Navajo high court delays election for leader, orders new ballots

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 23, 2014 6:43 PM

PHOENIX (Reuters) - The Navajo Nation's highest court on Thursday ordered that a November vote to pick the Native American tribe's top official be postponed and ballots reprinted after a finalist was disqualified for refusing to prove his fluency in the Navajo language.

The three-member Navajo Supreme Court said in a written ruling that the ballot for the general election, which was originally scheduled for Nov. 4, will be without tribal presidential candidate Chris Deschene's name. The vote is intended to determine who should lead the largest Native American community in the United States.

In a 2-1 decision, justices said that instead of Deschene as a candidate, the ballot will contain the name of Russell Begaye, who finished third in a primary election held in August and had not advanced to the general election. Begaye will face off against ex-tribal president Joe Shirley Jr.

It was not immediately clear when the postponed election would be held.

Deschene is pursuing a last-minute effort through the Navajo Nation's tribal council to be put back on the ballot, said a Deschene spokeswoman who declined further comment.

The Navajo high court this week struck down Deschene’s appeal to remain on the ballot after he was disqualified by a tribal hearing officer because he failed to answer questions in Navajo posed to him during a hearing. The tribe requires all presidential candidates be fluent in Navajo, which U.S. Census estimates show is spoken by progressively smaller numbers.

Deschene has said he would not be tested and that the will of those who voted for him in the primary election must be respected. He maintains he can speak Navajo.

The dispute was touched off when two unsuccessful presidential hopefuls filed grievances, claiming that Deschene had lied about his fluency.

The sprawling Navajo Nation covers parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico totaling 27,425 square miles (71,030 square km).

(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis)