Cherokee election recount: Smith ahead by 5 votes

By Murray Evans
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) July 2011

A second recount found the incumbent ahead by five votes in the disputed election for principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes.

Results from the June 25 election have been in dispute since they were announced the morning after. Unofficial results initially showed longtime councilman Bill John Baker winning by 11 votes, but when the tribe’s election commission announced its official results the next day it said Principal Chief Chad Smith had won a fourth term by seven votes. 

A June 30 recount ended with Baker up by 266 votes, but the tribe’s highest court ordered another recount. That recounted ended with three-term incumbent Smith ahead by five votes, the Tulsa World reported. The fate of the election now heads to the tribe’s Supreme Court, which will hear the results from the recount.

“Tonight’s thorough hand recount under the scrutiny and watchful eyes of our Supreme Court Justices proves beyond doubt once again: we have received the most votes fair and square,” Smith said in a statement.

Baker said with a “razor thin” margin separating him and Smith, he looked forward to going to court on Tuesday to sort through “this mess.”

The two candidates watched the recount at the tribe’s election commission headquarters in Tahlequah, along with their attorneys, observers and members of the tribe’s Supreme Court. Reporters have not been allowed into the building and observers were kept hundreds of feet away from the entrance.

The June 30 recount that put Baker ahead was done by hand, and Smith had complained that a number of ballots weren’t counted. He filed a request for another tally, which the tribe’s Supreme Court ordered after visiting Election Commission offices and counting envelopes that carried the ballots. The second recount also was done by hand.

While the two candidates have been at odds over the election results, they both believe the hotly contested race has shaken voters’ confidence in the system.

“Tonight we had a third count of every vote, and for the third time we got a new number. With almost 40 more ballots counted this evening than were counted on election day – many with erasure marks or white out on them – there are more questions than ever,” Baker said in a statement.

There are about 300,000 Cherokees, making it Oklahoma’s largest tribe and one of the biggest in the nation. The tribe has a 14-county jurisdiction in northeastern Oklahoma, although many of its members live in other states. The eventual winner of the election is scheduled to be inaugurated Aug. 14 and will oversee a $600 million annual tribal budget.