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Navajo woman sues tribal government over canceled primary

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A member of the Navajo Nation is suing the tribal government to try to force a primary election that was canceled because of the coronavirus.

Eloise Brown alleged in the complaint filed in Window Rock District Court that tribal lawmakers don’t have the authority to change election dates. She said that power is reserved for the Navajo people.

“We have to stand up for the people, otherwise they (elected officials) are just going to go out of control,” she said Friday. “We need to tell the council, ‘we are the voters, you need to listen to the voters.’”

The lawsuit seeks to postpone the November general election until a primary election can be held, and extend the time for people to file for elected offices, such as school boards and community leadership positions.

If the elections aren’t held before the end of the year, the lawsuit proposes extending the terms of elected officials.

Brown’s attorneys, David Jordan and Justin Jones, questioned the logic in using the pandemic to cancel the primary election but maintain the general election date. They said it sets a dangerous precedent.

Jordan said counties that set up polling sites on the reservation for the statewide primary ensured social distancing, and had people wear masks and wash their hands.

“There’s a ton of things you could do and keep the election,” Jordan said.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Seth Damon’s office didn’t respond directly to the lawsuit, saying it hadn’t received a copy. In a statement, it said the Tribal Council had established a record of discussion leading up to its action.

Navajo Attorney General Doreen McPaul didn’t respond to a request for comment left after regular business hours Friday.

The Tribal Council approved legislation to cancel the tribe’s Aug. 4 primary that’s typically held in line with the Arizona primary election over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Tribal President Jonathan Nez vetoed the measure and urged lawmakers and election officials to come up with alternatives to preserve tribal members’ rights to vote.

The Tribal Council overturned the veto, sending all candidates to the general election ballot for the races to be decided by plurality vote.

The deadline to file for the positions was Monday. Brown is seeking re-election as a grazing official in Sanostee on the New Mexico portion of the reservation, which also extends into Arizona and Utah.