Cherokee court invalidates vote; chief to schedule new election
BY LENZY KREHBIEL-BURTON World Correspondent
Friday, July 22, 2011
7/22/11 at 7:08 AM
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TAHLEQUAH - Incumbent Principal Chief Chad Smith will set a date for a new election in the contest for his position now that the tribe's Supreme Court has invalidated the first election.
Citing mathematical uncertainty, the court vacated all previous certifications of that election's outcome Thursday morning, including the last one - issued on June 30 - that made Bill John Baker the chief-elect by 266 votes.
Three days before that outcome, the Cherokee Nation Election Commission had declared Smith the winner by seven votes.
Cherokee election laws state that in the event that the tribal Supreme Court invalidates an election, the Election Commission's chairman must notify the principal chief, who then must order a new election "as soon as practical."
Principal Chief Chad Smith said Thursday afternoon that the notification from the Cherokee Nation Election Commission chairman - an office that has been vacant for more than two weeks - is "only a formality" and so the lack of a chairman will not slow down his meetings with the Election Commission and the Tribal Council to determine the new election date and its timeline.
Smith said that information would be announced sometime during mid-to-late next week.
"There is a process we must follow," he said. "There are several issues that will need to be addressed, and that will help us decide when we can have the new election."
Among the items to be addressed is a recommendation made by the Tribal Council on July 12, which requests that the Election Commission bring in an additional third-party organization to observe Saturday's run-off election in other races and any additional elections held this year. Among the organizations specifically suggested was the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which oversaw the tribe's 1999 elections.
According to reports from the Cherokee Phoenix, the tribe's newspaper, the Election Commission has not acted on the resolution.
Election Commission officials told the Phoenix that the board has not had an opportunity to schedule a meeting to discuss the recommendation because of the ongoing principal chief's race. Election Commission meetings are subject to the tribe's Freedom of Information Act, which requires at least 10 days' notice of a regular meeting or 24 hours' notice for emergency meetings.
The court decision did not elaborate on any logistics of the new election, including the question of requiring additional levels of scrutiny. Several justices had remarked in court Tuesday that to uphold the separation of powers, a new election should be left in the hands of the Election Commission.
"The election commissioners are good people," Baker said. "They don't want another fiasco with the new election."
In his motion for a new election, Baker asked that it be held within 30 days. On Thursday, he released a statement requesting that it be held on Aug. 13, the day before the principal chief's inauguration is scheduled.
"If they (the Election Commission) jump in now, it's possible to get it done by then," Baker said. "If it's treated like the run-off election, which is about 30 days after the general election, it is possible.
"The closer we can get to that target (Aug. 14), the better for the Cherokee people."
Baker said he did not check with Election Commission officials or with Terry Rainey, president of Automated Election Services, which provided the voting machines, on the feasibility of having another election in three weeks.
During Tuesday night's hearing, Election Commission attorney Lloyd Cole said on behalf of his clients and Rainey that having an election within 30 days is possible.
Smith did not say whether he agreed with Baker's request to have the new election on Aug. 13, which is a little more than three weeks away. He also said he didn't know if the election would be held before the tribe's national holiday, which is Labor Day weekend.
"The Cherokee people and I want this new election to be conducted as soon as possible," Smith said. "However, I don't want to rush it and create the same problems we had with the last election."
There is some question as to who will be chief if a winner is not declared prior to Aug. 14, which is designated by tribal law as Inauguration Day.
If the election hasn't happened or he hasn't been re-elected, "on Aug. 15, I'll be a regular Cherokee citizen," Smith said. "My term ends on Inauguration Day."
Baker made similar comments to reporters Thursday afternoon.
However, when asked who would be leading the tribe after Aug. 14, Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons could not confirm who it would be.
"We (the Attorney General's Office) are looking into all issues surrounding this novel circumstance," Hammons wrote in an email.
The tribe's constitution provides for succession if the principal chief dies, is removed from office, resigns or is incapacitated due to disability or illness. Except in the case of temporary incapacitation, the deputy chief assumes the responsibilities of the principal chief for the remainder of the chief's four-year term.
The office of deputy chief is one of four races that will be decided Saturday in a run-off election. Current Tribal Council members Joe Crittenden of Stilwell and Chris Soap of Pryor were the top two finishers in the general election on June 25.
Current Deputy Chief Joe Grayson chose not to seek re-election and lost his bid for a Tribal Council seat.
"Sometimes all the planets have to align for something unusual to happen," Soap said. "We've definitely got something unusual happening."
"I didn't run for principal chief," Crittenden said. "I'm running for deputy chief. Given the situation, however, Chris or I could play an integral part in how this all plays out."
Cherokee election timeline
June 25: Cherokee voters cast their ballots for principal chief.
June 26: After a night of counting votes, Bill John Baker is announced the unofficial winner by 11 votes. An earlier count that had not included challenged ballots had incumbent Chief Chad Smith ahead by a narrow margin.
June 27: The Cherokee Nation Election Commission says Smith is the official winner by seven votes. Baker calls for a recount.
June 28: Baker asks the tribe's Supreme Court for an emergency injunction and seeks the immediate release of certified election results.
June 29: Baker asks for a hand recount of the election results.
June 30: Certified recount figures make Baker the winner by a 266-vote margin.
July 1: Attorneys for Smith file court papers seeking an electronic recount.
July 5: Smith asks the Supreme Court for a new election. Tribal Election Commission Chairman Roger Johnson resigns.
July 8: The Supreme Court begins hearing testimony on Smith's appeal of the election results. A Tulsa World review shows that at least 31 votes in the election appear to have come from unregistered voters.
July 10: Supreme Court justices order a comparison of the names of 15,000 voters in the June 25 election with the 300,000 Cherokee Nation members who are registered to vote.
July 12: The Supreme Court orders a hand count of all ballots from the tribe's June 25 election. The count is to be used as part of Smith's appeal and not to determine the next chief.
Sunday: The hand count of ballots under Supreme Court supervision concludes that Smith finished five votes ahead of Baker. For the time being, that count will be used only as evidence in the hearing, and Baker remains chief-elect.
Tuesday: Vote totals from Sunday's hand count are released: Smith had 7,627, and Baker had 7,622. The Supreme Court hears closing arguments in an appeal and says it will issue a ruling by Thursday.
Thursday: The Supreme Court rules that a new election will be held. An election official says the date probably won't be set until after Saturday's runoff elections are complete.
Original Print Headline: New election to be set
The voting totals
Date||Baker||Smith||Leader||What happened |
June 26||7,600||7,589||Baker by 11||Unofficial totals posted at Election Commission building and online|
June 27||7,602||7,609||Smith by 7||Official totals released and certified the same afternoon|
June 30||7,613||7,347||Baker by 266||Recount totals certified that night; Smith appeals|
Sunday||NA||NA||Smith by 5||Officials say they will release vote totals on Tuesday|
Tuesday||7,622||7,627||Smith by 5||Officials release vote totals of most recent recount|
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith talks to the media at his office in Tahlequah on Thursday. ADAM WISNESKI/Tulsa World
Bill John Baker talks to the media during a press conference inside his office in Tahlequah on Thursday. ADAM WISNESKI/Tulsa World