FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Funding for the long-delayed Navajo presidential election took a back seat Friday to a provision that would allow voters to decide whether candidates can speak and understand the tribe's language well enough to hold the office.
Navajo language fluency has loomed over the election ever since Chris Deschene was disqualified last year for failing to prove he met the requirement for the tribe's top elected post. A bill approved by the Navajo Nation Council in a special session could remove that requirement through a reservation-wide vote that hasn't been scheduled.
The tribe's election office requested nearly $318,000 to conduct a general election for the presidency, featuring Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye as ordered by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court in the most recent election case. Under the bill, the referendum vote gets first priority for funding.
It now goes to President Ben Shelly, who said late Friday "let the people vote" on the referendum.
Elections director Edison Wauneka told the council he would move forward with the April 21 general election using his office's operational funds if needed and regardless of what the council decided. His stance wasn't welcomed by council delegates who reminded him that the tribe's high court didn't order them to fund the election, only to consider funding it.
The election office said a staff meeting was planned Monday to further discuss the council's action.
Delegate Leonard Tsosie shepherded the amendment for the referendum vote through the council. He said allowing Navajos to weigh in is the best way to settle the language fluency question and complaints of voter disenfranchisement.
"The people will guide us on how to resolve this thing," Tsosie said. "There's no pending emergency with respect to the office of the president."
Delegate Dwight Witherspoon, who sponsored the funding bill and urged lawmakers to approve it in its original form, said he views the situation differently.
"Their vote counted and counted for their candidate," he said. "However, their candidate was disqualified. We need to differentiate between the right to vote and the right to vote for a particular candidate."
The exact language of the ballot measure hasn't been decided. Tsosie said he anticipated the vote would be held within the next couple of months.