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An Election Day Tale From Elsa Johnson

Elsa Johnson, a Navajo grassroots activist and renewable energy consultant, has fond memories of the time when voter turnout on the Navajo Nation surprised Arizona. Her own family still participates in voting as a tradition, an anticipated and highly social event. As such, they provide a window into a time that seems to have gone by. Johnson also speculates about why Navajos are perhaps less motivated to vote than they once were. She writes:

On Election Day, my family drives in from various parts of the Southwest to vote at our home Navajo chapter, Forest Lake. My mother, who does not read or write English, is a faithful voter like many her age: 85-plus. One of us will drive her to the poll after she carefully dresses her Navajo best. Mother and all of us vote "long ears" (Democrat) as we say in Navajo. After casting her ballot, mother loves to mingle with relatives at nearby food stands. Navajos are very social people. Hot stew food, frybread and coffee is usually sold or served by local folks—within legal distance from the polling place, of course. This is because sometimes elders have to corral their sheep and go a distance to vote. Some hitchhike in. Sometimes folks size up the candidates. We don’t have a word for “candidate” so we refer to them as “lii” or horse —even most of the military code our Navajo Code Talkers devised was centered around animals.

I either vote absentee or go early so I can prepare a big feast for returning family members. One by one my siblings' vehicles start arriving throughout the afternoon. After everyone votes, we gather around the dinner table -- mother's ten adult children and a number of her grandchildren. Her home is typically surrounded by 10 or more vehicles. We visit, laugh and eat, not necessarily in that order. Then, precisely at 7 p.m., I serve dessert and coffee and we turn on Navajo station KTNN to listen to the election results - no TV. This is the Johnson ritual every two years on the first Tuesday of November.

As I said, mother doesn’t read or write, but she has an overwhelming sense of duty—voting. Sometimes her “horse” does not win, but that doesn’t dishearten her. I admire her fortitude.

When I was younger, in my early 20s, there were three or four of us young, energetic and enthusiastic staff at the Navajo Election Office. Any time there was an event we registered people. To this day, every remote Navajo home has a battery-operated AM-FM radio; back then, the election commissioners would go on air and urge people to register to vote. As the date approached we asked people to give their grandparents and neighbors rides to the poll.

One of the most exciting years for me was 1980. The late Erna Benally, who was then the Navajo election manager, and I witnessed election night at then-Arizona Secretary of State Rose Mofford's office. Prior to that year we’d nearly tripled our voter registration numbers on Navajo Nation. On Election Day we drove from Window Rock, Arizona and spot-checked the polling places at various chapters on our way to Phoenix. The poll workers did a phenomenal job of assisting those who could not read or write. The Secretary of State’s office was like a museum and very stately with an impressive collection of Navajo, Hopi and Apache artifacts. From about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. we watched the numbers on TV with Mrs. Mofford and her assistant. At that time very few chapter houses had telephones, so the police dispatched returns from several remote chapters. Hence, the Navajo numbers showed up late.

A word about Mrs. Mofford—she rocked back in her day. She wore a massive snow- white beehive, ever so neatly piled several inches high. Her ‘do reminded me of a huge cotton candy or a gigantic soft swirl ice cream. Her eccentric jet black false lashes that looked like gaagii (crow) wings contrasted with bright red lipstick; she wore stiletto high heels to boot. Only Rose could pull that off. She towered above us, two petite young Navajo ladies. Mrs. Mofford was wonderful to work with, and, she was so excited over our registration numbers.

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The prior 1.5 years the young election office staff had done an amazing job of voter registration, education, outreach and recruitment and training poll workers. Our registration numbers and voter turnout were high. In fact that year Coconino and Navajo counties had up to 50 percent turnout and Apache County had 60 percent, boosted by the Navajo votes. Our efforts nearly unseated Arizona's favorite son, former presidential candidate and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. I recall that day the Navajo folks, mainly elders, walking into the voting booth saying, "oola toh doda!" (gold water no!) because of the injustices stemming from Bennett Freeze, the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute and relocation under his watch. Democratic candidate Bill Shulz nearly beat Senator Goldwater.

As much as we adored her, it was rather nice to see Rose Mofford, a Democrat, pacing the floor nervous for Goldwater past 3 a.m., at which time we happily left to get some much-needed sleep. Well, later we woke to unpleasant news: Goldwater won—barely. Sun City, a Republican stronghold, had saved him.

Still, I think we almost scared the socks off the Republicans that year. Navajo could have unseated Barry Goldwater. No one viewed this as a historical feat. It could have been. A week ago, Arizona became a Swing State and if every registered Navajo votes we could seat a Democrat as our U.S. Senator, Rich Carmona—the very seat being vacated by retiring Jon Kyl. That would be so sweet.

Since that time I've lived in California and Ilinois, and about 10 years ago I saw Mrs. Mofford again at a dinner in Phoenix. I walked over to her and recounted the fact I watched the returns at her office November 1980. She remembered, and said to me, "You should have stayed in politics."

Running for public office has never appealed to me. I prefer to serve people without a title or fanfare. I do, however, throw my wholehearted support behind people I believe in and trust will do a good job.

Since those days, times have changed significantly. Now people are very mobile and there are too many events and responsibilities. It also seems modern technology provides constant diversions. The TV and the cell phones have helped some, but they also are distractions.

Finally, I feel campaigns have become dirty and extreme. You hear people say, “I’m so tired of all this dirty, dirty campaigning.” Things were different before. You never saw all this mudslinging on TV. They make everybody look so untrustworthy; people just tear one another down. It’s such a stark difference from that time to now.

Elsa Johnson is a Navajo artist.