Recount reveals 36 uncounted votes
Tuesday’s recount of Primary Election votes from the Chilchinbeto Chapter revealed 36 early vote ballots that were not counted.
On the second day of the recount of the Aug. 2 election for president, early votes contained in envelopes were taken out of the Chilchinbeto Chapter ballot box.
Out of those 36 ballots, one was not even from the chapter – it was a ballot from the Coalmine Canyon Chapter.
Former candidate Emily Ellison said five ballots from Coppermine Chapter were also found in the emergency slot.
Unofficial results showed 321 voters cast ballots at Chilchinbeto and 337 at the Coppermine on Aug. 2.
Navajo Board of Election Supervisors Chairman Melvin Harrison said the ballots they found on Tuesday had not yet been counted.
“We just now, all of us, just witnessed this coming out,” Harrison said to the candidates and their poll watchers, including Chris Bahe, a poll watcher for the Nez-Abeyta campaign. “Now we found out.”
Harrison did not explain how the Coalmine ballot was found in the batch of envelopes from Chilchinbeto.
The election board recounted ballots from the primary race after candidates raised concerns about the unofficial results.
Board members approved a resolution for the recount after some candidates questioned the efficiency and accuracy of voting machines used in the election.
Candidates raise questions
Candidates Ethel Branch, Roseanna Jumbo-Fitch, Greg Bigman, and Emily Ellison shared their opinions about the machines to the board earlier this month.
Branch told the election board on Aug. 11 that they were concerned the election was not a fair race.
“We want to make sure that the machines were properly counting,” Branch said.
She said that she and others have questioned the age of the machines and measures taken to secure the machines, which she described as being “over a quarter century old.”
At the board’s meeting on Aug. 25, after an executive session, the board passed a resolution that outlines the procedure, schedule, and budget for the recount.
Incumbent Jonathan Nez stated on Tuesday night that voters’ rights and the integrity of the election — this election and future ones, too — are “very important.”
“The decision to conduct a recount of all 110 chapters, without any evidence, reasoning, or legislative authority to do so at a cost of over $167,000 of the Navajo people’s money, has set a precedent for any and all future Navajo Nation elections,” Nez said in the statement.
He added that grievances filed with the Office of Hearings and Appeals were dismissed due to a lack of supporting evidence.
“The results of the recount to this point do not show any deviation in the results of the election,” Nez said. “We feel this is a testament to the integrity and accuracy of the Navajo voting system.”
Nez’s challenger, Buu Nygren, issued a statement that said his campaign’s poll watchers raised troubling concerns about the integrity and security of the Diné people’s vote.
“Sadly, the discovery of 36 ballots from the Chilchinbeto Chapter that were not accounted for, never opened, and never counted underscores the need for transparency and detailed plans that show, step by step, the security measures that will be followed by the designated Navajo Election Administration officials and staff,” Nygren stated in his statement.
“Along with Mrs. Montoya and our campaign, I call on the Navajo Nation Election Administration and its board of supervisors to take the necessary actions that must protect our Diné people’s vote as we prepare for the General Election on Tuesday, November 8,” he said. “Nothing less will be accepted.”
Nez said his campaign staff would continue to monitor the recount.
Disagreements could ‘get tense’
Ellison said on Tuesday that she appreciated the board for allowing the recount. She alluded to some verbal disagreements that have taken place between the candidates and election staff and said politics could “get tense.”
The 36 votes, which represent about 10% of Chilchinbeto’s total vote, were one example of the communications that had taken place when the candidates were asking questions.
After the Chilchinbeto votes were added to the final tally, candidates requested Harrison to approve an audit of the Leupp Chapter’s ballots.
That’s when communications heated up between Navajo Election Administration Director Rosita Kelly, staff member Vera Morgan and Branch.
Kelly told Branch the candidates only paid for Monday’s 10-chapter recount, adding that the resolution approved by the election board did not include audits.
Branch clarified the recount and audit were for all 110 chapters.
Election board chair Harrison quickly chimed in and said Branch was correct.
The poll worker who was helping recount the Chilchinbeto ballots said she needed to drive home because she had driven a long way.
Kelly and election board supervisor Shirlee Bedonie sided with the poll worker, said Tuesday’s recount was done and walked away.
After the heated discussion cooled down, both sides agreed to conduct an audit of the Leupp Chapter’s ballots today at 10 a.m.
“I think at the end of the day, we all have to remember that we’re all human, and we get tired, but the principle of what we’re doing is important to all of us,” Ellison said. “That’s why we’re committed to it.”
Ellison said the recount also intended to improve the selection process and to inspire the legislative and executive branches to invest a minimum of $5 million into the election office and its system.
Poll workers not paid
She added that the system on how poll workers are paid also needed to be improved.
Poll worker Victor Yellowhair told Ellison they were not paid immediately and sometimes took up to three months for them to be paid.
During the last election in 2018, the poll worker told Ellison the workers did not get paid until a few days before Christmas.
“The poll workers are actually the backbone of the Navajo government during election time, and they forgot to feed those people,” Yellowhair said.
“And people don’t want it,” he told Ellison. “I’ll be surprised (if) nobody shows up at a poll this coming general election.”
Yellowhair said he drives 50 miles one way from his home in Chinle to Round Rock and Pinon because no one wants to work as a poll worker because of the payment system.
He added he continues to do the work because of his love for his communities.
“I love working with the communities and elderly people – I just do it,” Yellowhair told Ellison, adding expenses for fuel and food on election days came out of his own pocket.
Yellowhair said he’s been trying to recruit for poll worker positions at Forest Lake and Pinon but hasn’t had any luck.
Shonto resident Jones Grass, 84, who said he has been voting since 1968, and who drove his daughter — a poll worker — to Window Rock, said voting was the only way to voice concerns in government.
“It’s one way to have their voice in government; that’s the only way, really,” Grass said, who was Shonto Chapter president for 21 years. “And they have a choice to select who do they want to be the president or whatever.”
Grass said he’d told his three children, all now adults, to get involved because it was their turn.
“It’s now their turn to take over to whatever they want, at the local level, and Navajo government, even state government, and national government,” Grass said. “So, all those are, I tell them, it’s important to get to know what’s going on.”
The recount began on Monday at 9 a.m. with ballots from 10 chapters – Upper Fruitland, Tse Alnaoztii, Pinon, Churchrock, St. Michaels, To Nanees Dizi, Kayenta, Fort Defiance, Chinle, and Shiprock, according to the resolution.
On Tuesday, ballots from 28 Chinle and Western Agency chapters were recounted.
Ballots from 17 chapters in the Northern Agency were recounted on Wednesday.
Twenty-five chapters from Fort Defiance Chapter, represented by Nez’s staff and election board members, Arbin Mitchell and Melvin Harrison, will be recounted today.
And the remaining chapters — 30 in the Eastern Agency — will be counted on Friday.
The Navajo Election Administration hired Optech IIIP Eagle Voting Machine, also known as a “tabulator,” to count ballots and then conduct a recount by hand, according to the resolution.