Challenger wants ballots tossed, new Cherokee vote

By Justin Juozapavicius
Tahlequah, Oklahoma (AP) July 2011

The challenger in the disputed election for principal chief of the Cherokee Nation asked the tribe’s Supreme Court to either throw out disputed ballots or schedule a new election within 30 days, ours before a hearing in a lawsuit filed by the three-term incumbent.

Since the election was held three weeks ago for chief of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes, the incumbent and challenger have each been declared the winner – twice.

Longtime tribal councilman Bill John Baker made his latest requests in court filings last week, ahead of the hearing that evening in a lawsuit filed by incumbent Chief Chad Smith,  in which Smith sought confirmation of a second recount that shows him five votes ahead out of about 15,000 cast.

Baker is taking issue with “the treatment of certain altered ballots that are contained within a universe of 265 `hand-tallied absentee ballots.”’ Baker said the ballots couldn’t be read by voting machines because, in some cases, there were “erasures and alterations on the ballots themselves.”

Baker said if the court doesn’t set aside the disputed ballots, the election’s winner can’t be determined and a new election is necessary.

Meanwhile, Smith wants justices to confirm the results from a second recount.

“It is time to end the election, certify the results of this Court’s count verifying Chief Smith as the prevailing candidate, and move the Nation forward,” Smith said in his filing.

At stake is the leadership of 300,000 Cherokees, the largest tribe in Oklahoma, and a 14-county jurisdiction in the northeastern part of the state. 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, among other duties.

The overall vote total has been different all four times since the election was held June 25. The next morning, Baker was declared the unofficial winner by 11 votes. But the tribal election commission then certified Smith as the winner by seven votes. Baker then asked for the first recount, which indicated he was ahead by 266 votes. Smith then asked for the second recount.

When justices convene, they could either certify the weekend’s election results, delivering victory to Smith, hear more evidence from attorneys representing each campaign or order a new election, a process that would last several weeks at the earliest and drag on past the Aug. 14 inauguration day.