With a margin of more than 10,000 votes, Russell Begaye easily defeated a two-term former president during Tuesday’s special presidential election on the Navajo Nation.
Begaye, a businessman and one-term tribal legislator from Shiprock, New Mexico, earned 25,745 votes, according to unofficial results. His opponent, Joe Shirley Jr., earned 15,439. Shirley, of Chinle, Arizona, served back-to-back terms as the tribe’s top elected leader from 2003 to 2011.
About 30 percent of the Nation’s 120,000 registered voters cast ballots during Tuesday’s election, which was delayed for five months and followed a lengthy legal battle over an election law that requires presidential candidates to speak fluent Navajo.
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Just moments after votes were tallied, Begaye and vice president-elect Jonathan Nez addressed the uncertainty that has plagued the Nation since the primary election last August. Speaking to a crowd of voters gathered at the Navajo Sports Center in Window Rock, Arizona, Begaye promised to correct the election process.
“We will never get into this sort of election process again,” he said. “We will fix the system. We will make an election system that is fair to everyone.”
Begaye, who came in third during the August primary, found himself suddenly back in the race in late October when the Navajo Supreme Court permanently disqualified one candidate and ordered the ballots to be reprinted. Nez, his running mate, was re-elected to the Navajo Nation Council in November – a post he must now vacate.
Tuesday’s election came despite repeated attempts by lower courts, the Navajo Nation Council and former presidential candidates to postpone the vote until after the people could weigh in by referendum on the question of fluency. That referendum vote is scheduled for June.
Addressing voters late Tuesday, Begaye talked about moving past the confusion and into a more certain future.
“I think the people are really wanting to see something take place – really a significant change that’s tangible, that people will see, that we are moving forward as a Nation, and that is what we’re going to be doing,” he said. “We need to unite, work together hard and move forward.”
Nez also talked about a brighter future.
“It is time for healing,” he said. “It is time for unity. It is time to take this Nation to the next level.”
Shirley, who currently serves on the board of supervisors for Apache County, Arizona, told the Associated Press that the election results were not what he expected.
“The people have spoken, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “We fought for that, we wanted to have an election, and now that we have, the numbers are what they are.”
The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors and the Navajo Election Administration have 10 days to certify the results of Tuesday’s election. Begaye and Nez are expected to take the oath of office during a special inauguration ceremony in early May.