Cherokee council makes plans for next election

By Justing Juozapavicius
Tulsa, Oklahoma (AP) July 2011

The Cherokee Nation’s tribal council said it will ensure safeguards are in place for a new election – a day after a court tossed out results of the June 25 contest for chief of Oklahoma’s largest Native American tribe.

Tribal Council Speaker Meredith Frailey said the council has recommended hiring an independent election service and could recommend that more monitors be called in to weed out balloting problems similar to ones that occurred in the first election. The council will send its recommendations to the nation’s election commission, which will implement any changes.

She also urged Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith, who is expected to set the new election next week, to allow time for the council to study the need for the safeguards, before picking a date. The special election will likely take place after Aug. 14.

“If we can do it in 30 days, great, if we can’t, I hope the people will understand we just don’t want to jump out and have a new election,” Frailey said.

The tribe’s Supreme Court threw out last month’s election results between incumbent Smith and his challenger, tribal councilman Bill John Baker, because the five-justice panel could not determine with a mathematical certainty who won.

The ruling followed weeks of legal wrangling and multiple vote tallies that each came out with a different number. Baker had twice been declared winner, but so had Smith.

The official results of the most recent recount put Smith ahead by four votes, but that’s one fewer than in the unofficial results.

Baker’s legal team had suggested to the court that up to 26 ballots out of more than 15,000 cast had been spoiled because they were improperly notarized, filled out in pencil instead of pen or had erasure marks that cast doubt over a voter’s true intent.

At stake is the leadership of 300,000 Cherokees, one of the largest tribes in the U.S. The principal chief, similar to a U.S. president, administers a $600 million annual tribal budget, has veto power and sets the tribe’s national agenda, which is important given that many members live outside Oklahoma. The chief also oversees the tribe’s casinos, health care facilities and thousands of the nation’s employees.