Majority of Diné vote for 24-member council, line-item veto for president
By Jason Begay
WINDOW ROCK, Dec. 17, 2009
I f he were a gambling man, this would be the week for President Joe Shirley Jr. to buy a lottery ticket.
Navajo Nation voters overwhelmingly supported his government reform initiatives including a question to reduce the membership of the Navajo Nation Council, just one day after a Window Rock District Court judge rescued Shirley from a two-month-long forced leave imposed Oct. 26 by the council.
"I am very happy for the people," Shirley said Tuesday night at the Window Rock Sports Center, where election results were posted along the wall as they came in from the chapters. "I've always said this is their initiative, their money, their laws. They put the initiatives in the books. This is history in the making."
Shirley launched the initiatives in 2008, gathering over 18,000 signatures for each question: whether to reduce the council from 88 to 24 members; and grant the president power to veto portions of council spending measures such as the annual budget and appropriation bills.
Despite a series of roadblocks by legislative branch leaders, Shirley's quest to put the proposals to a vote of the people was upheld at each step, first by the Navajo Election Administration, then under appeal to the Office of Hearings and Appeals, and finally by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.
The election was held Tuesday with few problems, said Edison Wauneka, Navajo Election Administration director.
Voters overwhelmingly approved both questions.
With 44 percent of registered voters casting ballots, 25,206 voted in favor of council reduction with 16,166 voting against.
In the second question, 24,289 voted in favor of expanding the president's veto power with 16,893 voting against.
The results are unofficial until the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors certify the figures, which must be done by Dec. 28.
According to the preliminary figures, 85 of 110 chapters voted in favor of reducing the council and 85 chapters approved the line-item veto, though not all chapters voted the same on both issues.
Regional voting trends showed that support was strongest in the Central Agency, where 12 of 14 chapters supported the changes including Shirley's home chapter, Chinle.
Opposition was strongest in the Western Agency where 12 out of 18 chapters voted against the initiatives.
Voters in Chinle, which saw a 50 percent turnout, supported council reduction by 907-291, a margin of more than 4-1. The line-item veto passed 880-319, nearly 3-1.
Nearly all chapters in the Fort Defiance Agency voted in favor of both initiatives. Of 27 chapters in the agency, only one - White Cone - voted against reducing the council. It approved the line-item veto.
In the Northern Agency, 16 of 20 chapters voted for Shirley's initiatives. And in the Eastern Navajo Agency, 24 of 31 chapters supported both measures.
All the largest communities on the reservation and the chapters nearest towns - Fort Defiance, Tuba City, Chinle, Shiprock, Crownpoint and Church Rock - voted in favor of the plans. Kayenta turned in a split decision, narrowly defeating the line-item veto but approving council reduction by a decisive margin, according to the unofficial results.
Critics of council reduction say the largest chapters stand to make disproportionate gains from the change, in some cases getting their own delegate or swallowing their smaller neighbors during elections for a shared delegate.
Of the 25 chapters that voted against the council reduction, only four - Oljato, Sanostee, Huerfano and Tonalea/Red Lake - have more than 1,000 registered voters.
Not all chapters voted uniformly on both initiatives. In Northern Navajo four chapters voted against reducing the council, but seven chapters - including five that supported reduction - voted against giving the president line-item veto authority.
Meanwhile, in two chapters represented by Young Jeff Tom, the leading author of spending measures cited by Shirley as needing selective trimming, voters approved the line-item veto.
And in two chapters represented by the most high-profile opponent of council reduction, Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan, voters approved the 88-to-24 proposal.
Wauneka said voter turnout, at just over 44 percent of registered voters, was low. Of the five agencies, only Fort Defiance had a turnout over 50 percent. There, 51.19 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
The lowest voter participation rate was in Eastern Navajo, with a 39.58 percent turnout.
Kinlichee Chapter had the highest turnout with 58.73 percent of registered voters going to the polls Tuesday. Oljato Chapter had the lowest turnout, with 36 percent casting ballots.
Still, Shirley lauded the victory. He arrived at the sports center well into the announcements of chapter election results, welcomed by strong applause from around 200 people. He exchanged a few hugs and several handshakes as he walked to the wall where election results were posted.
He smiled as he ran his finger over the pages of numbers. Shirley took note of specific chapters, pausing to study the numbers for Round Rock, then Many Farms.
"Wow, look at that ... big time," he said, underlining the Many Farms results with his finger.
Many Farms voted nearly 2-1 for change, despite last-minute appeals outside the chapter house from its council representative, Kee Allen Begay.
Shirley then took note of results from Pinedale, one of the chapters represented by Speaker Morgan. Both of Morgan's chapters, including Iyanbito, approved both ballot questions. Shirley said nothing, his smile never faltered.
Shirley said the council reduction initiative is now in the hands of the council. According to the language written in the initial initiative petition, the council has 60 days to devise and approve a reapportionment plan detailing how the 24-member council will be spread across the map. If a plan is not approved by then, Shirley would draft a plan.
However, this language was omitted from the ballots in the election. Shirley said he is confident a court will uphold the petition language if the council fails to follow it.
"We have a map to begin with," Shirley said of a reapportionment plan drafted in 2000. "It's a good place to start."
Shirley said he hopes the council will invite him to work on the redistricting plan.
Messages left with the speaker's office asking for comment were not returned by press time Wednesday.