Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez had a significant lead late Tuesday over his opponent in the race for the tribe's top post, but the election was marred by widespread reports of ballot shortages.
Nez had about double the votes of former two-term President Joe Shirley Jr. in the non-partisan race with nearly all precincts reporting. It was unclear how election officials would factor in Navajos who were unable to cast ballots.
Nez arrived at the tribe's capital in Window Rock to a raucous crowd and later declared victory. Campaign spokeswoman Clara Pratte said Nez will know more in the coming days about how many people potentially were unable to vote.
"Any vote denied is a concern, especially in a true democracy like the Navajo Nation where every vote counts," she said.
Elections director Edbert Little said the tribe ordered more than enough ballots for the 110 precincts on the vast reservation that stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. He attributed the shortage to machines that rejected the paper ballots and said some voters had to be given replacement ballots.
Voters reported arriving at polling places were told the ballots had run out and were instructed to write down their names and tribal identification numbers.
Steve Blackrock left a polling place near Pinon, Arizona, after waiting for an hour to see if more ballots would arrive.
"It's a sad feeling knowing that you weren't able to participate in such an important day," he said.
The tribe's primary election in August drew a record 18 candidates, with Nez and Shirley emerging as the top two vote-getters. Outgoing President Russell Begaye did not advance beyond the primary.
Nez and Shirley set priorities similar to those of past candidates: Serving the elderly, veterans and youth; developing the economy; building homes; extending water and electricity service to Navajos in need; and enticing business to a reservation with high unemployment that will worsen with a hit to one of its most important economic sectors.
The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station power plant near the Arizona-Utah border and the coal mine in the community of Kayenta that feeds it are set to close in late 2019. When those go, tribal officials say revenue from lease payments and coal royalties will drop 30 percent.
Both Shirley and Nez worry about the hundreds of jobs that also will be lost, likely forcing Navajo families to find work off the reservation. The tribe was negotiating with a potential buyer for the power plant but the talks fell through. Peabody Energy, which owns the mine, led the push to find a successor for the power plant.
One last hope could be the Navajo Nation itself, which said last week that it's looking into buying the Navajo Generating Station.
The reservation has abundant coal, so tribal leaders have been hesitant to shy away from the coal industry even as the fuel falls out of favor with utilities nationwide.
The tribe owns a different coal mine in northwestern New Mexico and has a 7 percent stake in the power plant that it supplies with coal.
Shirley has said he would do whatever he can to extend the life of the Navajo Generating Station. Nez said finding buyers for the power plant beyond 2019 is almost impossible. He has talked about finding another use for the plant, such as converting it to natural gas, or building a rail line to export coal.
The tribe recently built two solar energy farms in Kayenta that produce about 55 megawatts. Navajo officials have said they want to boost power output to 500 megawatts over the next five to 10 years. But officials have said those projects alone cannot replace the revenue and jobs that the reservation is set to lose with the impending power plant and mine closure.
In his time as vice president, Nez was known as an advocate for health and wellness. He cites himself as an example, saying he became a long distance runner after he hit 300 pounds (136 kilograms).
Nez said promoting self-sufficiency, tourism and Navajo-owned businesses, and revamping tribal laws are part of his equation to boost revenue. He said he'd leave economic development strategy largely to his running mate, Myron Lizer, who manages hardware stores on the reservation.
Shirley chose 31-year-old construction manager Buu Van Nygren as his running mate and said Nygren would help serve as a bridge between elderly and young Navajos.
Shirley said he would focus on business development, tourism and empowering small Navajo communities to impose local taxes, for example, in another term as president. The first of four Navajo Nation casinos opened under his previous administration. Construction of a new coal-fired power plant that he championed never happened.