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Recount held in election for Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman

The Ute Mountain Ute election for tribal chairman was conducted Oct. 14, above, and a recount was held Oct. 28 at the request of a losing candidate. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Chairman Manuel Heart retains victory; White Mesa candidate also sought recount in separate election

Candidates questioned the results of the Oct. 14 Ute Mountain Ute election, which led to a recount in the tribal chairman race and raised concerns about the tribe’s election process.

Two candidates running in separate races sought recounts, but only one was held.

Selwyn Whiteskunk, a candidate for chairman who came in second, requested a recount in that election, and it was conducted on Oct. 28 in council chambers.

Suzette Morris, a candidate for the White Mesa Council seat election, sought a recount but was unable to file the paperwork by the deadline because the tribal elections office was closed.

The recount for tribal chairman did not change the outcome, and incumbent Manuel Heart was confirmed as the winner out of six candidates.

Heart had 139 votes, compared with Whiteskunk’s second place of 109 votes, according to recount results. The original vote tally was 152 for Heart and 123 for Whiteskunk.

Vote tallies for the other five other chairman candidates were also adjusted downward as a result of the recount.

The recount recorded 65 invalid ballots, more than double the 26 invalid ballots recorded in the original tally on Election Day Oct. 14.

“Why so many more spoiled ballots? To me that is not right,” Whiteskunk said in an interview. “How a ballot was determined to be invalid was inconsistent.”

Results of recount for Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman election. (Courtesy Selwyn Whiteskunk)
Original final ballot tally for Ute Mountain Tribal Chairman taken on Oct. 14. (Courtesy Selwyn Whiteskunk)

He attended the recount and believes an overly strict interpretation of ballot instructions led to more ballots being deemed invalid.

The ballot instructions indicate that a check mark or “X” be made within the square next to the candidate, Whiteskunk said. It could be interpreted that marks that go outside the box invalidate the ballot, he said.

Whiteskunk was present for the recount and said he became concerned that ballots appeared to be invalidated if the check mark or “X” was within the box but the mark also traveled outside the lines of the box.

“It went outside the box, so it was not counted – an invalid mark, so it’s a spoiled ballot,” Whiteskunk said.

Whiteskunk initially was denied a recount by the election board, which stated, “The number of spoiled ballots are below the amount that would constitute a different outcome for the chairman’s seat.”

Whiteskunk challenged the denial in court, and it was overruled by Ute Mountain Chief Magistrate Judge Adam C. Barnhurst.

According to the Oct. 24 ruling, Barnhurst said Whiteskunk “followed the requirements of the Ute Mountain Tribe Election Ordinance for a recount” and the “Election board must comply . . . and conduct a recount.”

Barnhurst ruled the recount was required because Whiteskunk filed for it within the three-day deadline and paid the $50 fee as required by the tribe’s election laws.

Whiteskunk’s complaint also cited other concerns with the election process.

“In my opinion, the tribal election was not in accordance with the Election Ordinance,” he states in the complaint.

In a complaint submitted to tribe officials, he requested that the election be voided and that the procedures of the election be investigated by the election board or by an independent investigator.

“When there is inconsistency in the rules, you violate the rights of the people, you lose the trust of the people. It is time to change that,” Whiteskunk said. “I am not ashamed in what I am doing, people need to know.”

To run for tribal chair, Whiteskunk was required to resign from his seat on tribal council.

A special election will be held for the vacated seat in January or February.

White Mesa candidate wanted recount

In the election for the tribal council seat representing White Mesa, incumbent Malcolm Lehi was reelected 39 to 37 over challenger Suzette Morris. One ballot was deemed invalid.

According to the election ordinance, candidates have three business days to file a request for a recount with the election board and pay the $50 fee. The deadline was Oct. 19 at noon.

Morris said she arrived at the election office Oct. 19 before the deadline to file for a recount but the office was closed.

She called and texted Election Board Chairman Arlene Onco at 11:25 a.m. and 11:35 a.m. to inform her that she was requesting a recount and that nobody was in office.

At 12:02 p.m., Onco texted Morris that the deadline for a recount to be filed and $50 fee paid was noon.

“It is now 12:01, and the election board is not taking any requests for recount,” Onco’s text states.

Morris said she felt her rights as a candidate were violated.

“I feel like I should have had a recount,” she said in a phone interview. “Nobody was in the office. They ought to make somebody available up to the deadline.”

Morris said another issue is the ordinance says a recount request must be filed within three days, but the deadline is noon on the third day.

“Hopefully they will make some changes to the election ordinance. As tribal members, every candidate should be given a fair chance,” she said.

The White Mesa ballots are typically counted at the White Mesa Community Center in a public forum. However, the White Mesa election committee that oversees the ballot tally lacked a quorum, so the ballots were delivered to Towaoc by security to be counted by election officials.

When contacted Monday by The Journal, Onco stated she had no comment on the election procedures or concerns brought by Whiteskunk and Morris.