FJ Thompson headed to a polling site to vote in the Navajo Nation election this week only to be told it had run out of ballots.
She and about 30 others waited outside the Breadsprings Chapter in northwestern New Mexico thinking someone might pull up with more. As it got darker and within a half-hour of the polling site closing, she decided to leave.
“I’m so disappointed,” she said. “To me, the first thing I thought was, ‘It’s a rigged election. Somebody is not properly giving all the ballots they need for chapters.'”
The complaints were widespread across the Navajo Nation, where voters were choosing a new president to oversee the country’s largest Native American reservation and representatives to the 24-member Tribal Council. Two days later, election officials offered a solution: Anyone who left their name at a polling site with no more ballots has a week to vote at one of a handful of election offices, starting Tuesday.
“While many factors contributed to the issues that occurred, we understand that every registered voter has the right to have their vote counted, and we are doing our best to assure that happens,” the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors said in a statement.
The ballot shortage was traced to a two-part referendum that asked Navajos whether they wanted to increase the salary of top elected leaders. Voting machines rejected overmarked ballots, and second ballots were issued, resulting in a shortage, tribal officials said.
Some precincts issued photo-copied ballots after they ran out. People elsewhere were told to leave their names, numbers and other identifying information. But the tribe’s election supervisors said those instructions didn’t reach some precincts in remote places.
Would-be voters were upset and felt disenfranchised. They weren’t sure they would be contacted.
Marlena Pino kept her cellphone close as she left a precinct south of Gallup, New Mexico, on Tuesday, more than two hours from where she lives.
“They didn’t say wait around or anything. They just said, ‘We have your information,'” Pino said.
The late ballots are unlikely to affect the results of the presidential race: Tribal Vice President Jonathan Nez beat former two-term President Joe Shirley Jr. by a wide margin.
But in one council race, only 20 votes separated the candidates. Mark Freeland is ahead in unofficial results for the seat representing Crownpoint, New Mexico, and nearby communities.
He said he is not declaring himself the winner. Absentee and provisional ballots still need to be counted, and he wasn’t sure if people were turned away from voting in his race.
“Everyone should have the right and ability to vote to have their voices be heard,” he said.
The tribe’s election supervisors announced Friday that they fired elections director Edbert Little, saying the office needed a “new direction.” He was appointed in April 2017.
The election comes during a year when tens of thousands of Navajos were purged from the voting rolls. The tribe’s election office generally removes voters in odd years if they don’t cast ballots in two consecutive, major elections. The purge took place earlier this year because it hadn’t been done as scheduled, election officials said. Not all those removed re-registered.
Edison Wauneka, who served 13 years as the tribe’s elections director and left the position almost two years ago, said ballot shortages were rare. He recalled times when a couple of precincts had a surprisingly high turnout and ballots weren’t available and when a polling site didn’t open on time, forcing a re-election in a council race. He said even with the spoiled ballots this time, “there shouldn’t have been that many who ran out.”
“It’s going to be hard to have them vote after the polls are closed,” he said.
Wauneka was leading his opponent in a council race by 49 votes.
Thompson might have to take leave from work to cast a late ballot, depending on whether she can vote late in Window Rock, a 20-minute drive, or the election office in Crownpoint, an hour away.
“They always say, ‘If you don’t vote, why complain?'” she said Friday. “I’m still complaining because I didn’t get a chance to vote. That’s my right to vote.”
Tribal officials say the number of people who could not vote won’t be known until early next week when election offices submit their reports.
The election supervisors generally certify results within 10 days of the election following a grievance period. But they said they’ll wait until the late ballots are cast.
The ballot shortages did not affect voting for non-tribal races. Those elections are run separately from the Navajo Nation.
The closest tribal election office for Carol Davis is at least a 90-mile (145-kilometer) drive. She was waiting in her vehicle in Dilkon on Tuesday with a child when her husband returned to say the last ballot had been given to the person ahead of him. She questioned whether the precinct had ordered enough ballots and still wants to vote.
But like others who were standing outside talking, she didn’t leave her information.
“There’s still probably a lot of people who are confused and won’t be voting,” she said.