Cherokee Nation Chief vetoes tribal redistricting

Tulsa, Oklahoma (AP) 7-08

A tribal redistricting plan overwhelming approved by the Cherokee Nation General Council has been vetoed by Principal Chief Chad Smith, who accused the council of gerrymandering.

The tribe currently has nine districts, seven of which have two representatives. The other two have one representative each. The legislation vetoed by Smith would have established 15 districts, with one council representative each.

The General Council earlier during early July passed the proposal 15-2 over Smith’s objections. Councilor Chuck Hoskin Jr. said at the time he was optimistic that a veto would be overturned.

The tribe’s Constitution mandates that districts be redrawn every decade. The legislation uses readily identifiable boundaries, such as highways, county lines, bodies of water and other geographical features, to prevent voter confusion.

Councilor Jack Baker said citizenship information from the tribe’s registration office and work by the tribe’s Geo-Data Department were used to create a reasonably equal distribution of citizens in each district.

But in his veto message, Smith said the districts were not divided evenly. He accused the council of gerrymandering and considering where councilors would campaign as a factor in the redistricting.

By some of the council member’s own admission, the proposed districts have been drawn up with the interests of incumbent council members in mind, rather than the interests of the Cherokee people, Smith wrote.

Under the proposed map, and even with two councilors living within just a few miles of one another, no incumbent council member would have to face another incumbent council member, Smith said.

Noting that many of the proposed districts were oddly shaped and including quotes from councilors about re-election and keeping sitting members from running against each other, Smith wrote, “It appears some council members consider the districts to be their own personal property, to be redrawn to protect their own interests, rather than a district of Cherokee people whose interests they represent.”

To be truly equal districts, Smith said, all of the districts should contain about 7,162 citizens, but the number in the proposed districts often varies from that base figure by as much as 23 percent.

The legislation is not likely to sustain a court challenge, he said. Because the next council election isn’t until 2011, the council should take the time to redraw the districts and allow citizens to consider the plan, Smith wrote.

Hoskin said the redistricting would pit two councilors against each other in the next election.

“I think that’s the heart and soul of it (the accusation), that its gerrymandering,” he said. “If you look at our entire record of legislating, it doesn’t add up.”

He said Smith seized on a handful of statements by councilors and ignores the wide and deep legislative record amassed over months of deliberation.