Skip to main content

Pauly Denetclaw

WINDOW ROCK, Arizona — There were a handful of people waiting outside the Department of Diné Education building. Some stood under the cottonwood trees others sat on the red brick planters. It was a nice cool day in the capital of the Navajo Nation. Through the glass doors, another three people sat on chairs outside the room where the Navajo Nation presidential election recount was happening.

A sign on the wooden door said the room was at maximum capacity.

Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch, one of the 15 presidential candidates, stood just behind the yellow caution tape that kept recount observers a couple of feet away from the ballots, election staff and temporary recount workers. She kept her hands in her pockets as she diligently watched, walking back and forth along the tape, as the counts from Western Agency were underway on Tuesday.

This was day two of five for the recount. After the Navajo Nation primary election on Aug. 2, questions began to swirl about the election possibly being compromised after some of the presidential candidates made public statements calling into question the election results and filing grievances with the Office of Hearing and Appeals. Now, the nation is spending around $180,000 to recount by machine and hand nearly 48,000 votes from 110 chapters. A recount of this size has never been done before.

“We've submitted a lot of letters and questioning in regards to this whole election process, starting with the inconsistencies we saw during the election day,” Jumbo-Fitch said. “That led us to try to get some transparency between candidates versus Election Administration and Election Board.”

The Navajo Nation primary election recount is being diligently watched by recount observers as nearly 48,000 ballots will be recounted by machine and hand over the next few days in Window Rock, Arizona. (Photo by Pauly Denetclaw)

During the Navajo Nation primary, Jonathan Nez led the pack of 15 candidates with 35 percent of the votes. Altogether he got 17,073 votes. Buu Nygren came in second with 27.1 percent of the votes which came out to 12,878 votes. The top two candidates head to the general election on Nov. 8.

Five presidential candidates — Jumbo-Fitch, Frankie Davis, Greg Bigman, Ethel Branch, and Emily Ellison — have been outspoken about issues with the election process and results. Though only Jumbo-Fitch, Ellison, and Davis filed formal grievances with the Office of Hearing and Appeals that were ultimately dismissed. They alleged election violations.

Despite the grievances being dismissed, the election board heard the concerns and passed BOESAU-39-22, a resolution that authorized the primary election recount plan and the funding to conduct a recount.

“We asked a few questions in regards to how is this process handled. What are the trainings? What're the policies, procedures for this election?” she said. “Throughout the past couple of weeks, it's taken this much time to try to get some kind of recount done, but not necessarily answering our questions.”

Jumbo-Fitch noted the inconsistencies from how ballots are stored, what security measures are or aren’t being taken to how the votes are being recounted. Some chapter houses store the ballots in plywood boxes others in plastic or metal boxes. Some of the ballot boxes aren’t secured with any type of locking mechanism, just zip ties or serial numbered zip ties.

“There's a lot of inconsistencies that make an election compromisable if anything were to happen,” Jumbo-Fitch said.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Another issue raised was the age of the tabulators.

The tabulators, the machines used to count votes, were purchased by the nation in 1996. They are used only twice every two years and are kept in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque, at Automated Election Services, who stores, maintains, and troubleshoots the machines. Since ‘96, the machines have been used 24 times in the primary and general elections. They will be in use for the 25th time this November.

“If I was asked the question, 'Do you think we should get new machines?' Sure, I think we should get new machines,” Melvin Harrison, chair of the Navajo Board of Election Services, said. “I mean, they’re pretty old.”

Fortunately, the Navajo Election Administration will see $1.6 million in funding soon. This will be used to buy new office equipment and to create a whole new data system in the office. New tabulators are quite costly but Harrison has a creative solution he talked with election staff about.

“Leasing the machines every two years might be a good way to do this,” Harrison said.

Instead of purchasing the machines to be used just twice every two years, the nation could lease machines for the election. This could ensure that the most up-to-date tabulators are being used in Navajo elections.

The room is filled with the sound of beeping tabulators and the swooshing sound of paper ballots being fed into them. Harrison asks one of the recount workers if he can grab a pile of ballots to explain how the recount works. They give him the go ahead. He shows that the ballots in his hand are for Frankie Davis and explains that each pile of ballots are for a different presidential candidate. After, the piles are sorted, they are hand counted by the workers.

The way the recount goes is the workers get the original votes from election day that is stored on the tabulators. These votes are noted on a sheet of paper. The tabulators get zeroed out and then, they start feeding the ballots back into the tabulators to recount ballots. The final votes from the machine count are also noted on the same sheet of paper. After it’s recounted by the machine, the workers hand count the ballots and the final votes are also noted on that same sheet of paper.

If there are any inconsistencies, it will show on those sheets of paper.

As the recount goes on, Harrison isn’t taking the request personally.

“It's something that the candidates requested, and we want to respond to that in a very respectful way. So, we're doing that,” he said.

The recount is expected to be done Friday.

New ICT logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.