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Carter Center Report on Cherokee Elections Reinforces International Recognition of Tribal Sovereignty

The Carter Center has been invited to serve as an impartial observer in over 90 elections in 36 countries since 1989. Among this particular list of nations on the Carter Center’s website is only one that is on North American soil: The Cherokee Nation, who invited the Carter Center to observe in both July 1999 and, more recently, the election for Principal Chief in September 2011.

“The Carter Center's decision to observe the Cherokee Nation elections was a reflection of our recognition of the Nation as a sovereign entity,” said Avery Davis-Roberts, who currently manages the Carter Center's Democratic Election Standards Project. “The Center's statements and reports on the Cherokee Nation elections have received a lot of attention from those in the international election assistance community, who are interested in how it might serve as an example to other peoples in similar political contexts.”

The request for the Carter Center to observe the elections was made by the Cherokee Nation Election Commission on August 12, 2011, with the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Carter Center and the Cherokee Nation on September 7, 2011.

Within the report is a timeline of the election for Principal Chief between incumbent Chadwick Smith and challenger Bill John Baker, with special detail paid to the Carter Center observation dates of September 17 and 20-22 for early voting and the September 24 election day. Additional days of extra voting—September 29 and October 1, 4, 6 and 8—are included in the report to account for the counting of absentee and Freedmen votes. The three days of counting, tabulation and certification of votes, which took place October 9-12, are also included in the report.

The report states that the actual voting process ran efficiently overall, despite problems in several areas. One of these problems, according to the report, stemmed from recommendations originally made after their first observation in 1999, which said that the use of allowing tribal registration to dually act as voter registration was not enacted. As of the 2011 election, voter registration was not automatic with tribal enrollment. However, the Carter Center Report said that there was no restriction “on a person’s ability to vote” as long as a potential registered voter is a Cherokee citizen and is at least 18 years of age.

Other problems observed during the election included issues with confusion over absentee ballots. For example, in some cases with absentee ballots, 300 mistakes had been made by the notaries who signed the ballots—out of 10,000 absentee ballots—causing these particular absentee ballots to be nullified.

Another major issue had to do with provisional “challenged ballots” – ballots made by those whose voter registration could be called into question. Those who were given challenged ballots didn’t always understand that the challenged ballot might not be considered. One example was that when the Freedmen status was cast into doubt by tribal and federal court, some Freedmen were allowed to cast challenged ballots. Once the Freedmen decision was made in federal court, the challenged ballots by Freedmen were then counted. The report recommends clarifying the process for challenged ballots.

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Recommendations made to the Cherokee Nation, in several instances, have to do with improved communication between the Tribal Council and Election Commission and to review Election Code for “ambiguous language.” Other recommendations include having clear-cut voter ID rules; updating voter rolls with more frequency; greater efforts in voter education; restrict the use of absentee ballots primarily for those who vote out of the 14-county jurisdiction; and to have a “single constituency” for principal chief elections rather than voting by district.

The Carter Center Report also calls for greater use of poll watchers from each campaign running for office.

“The Carter Center met with the Tribal Council before the commencement of vote counting for the special election for Principal Chief in October of last year,” said Davis-Roberts. “At that time, the Tribal Council members with whom we met stated that the recommendations of The Carter Center mission would be taken into consideration during the process of reforming the election law after the election. The mission's final report has been shared with all members of the Tribal Council, as well as Principal Chief Baker, Chad Smith and members of the election commission.”

Principal Chief Baker said that both his administration and the current Tribal Council were in the process of incorporating the recommendations.

"I fully intend to work with the Tribal Council to follow the Carter Center's recommendations for future elections so we will have a process that everyone will have faith in,” said Baker.

Inquiries made to the Cherokee Nation Election Commission through the Cherokee Nation Communications Office had not been returned by press time.

"The Carter Center's involvement only reinforces the notion that we are sovereign,” Baker said about the Carter Center observation. “They only help other governments and their participation shows they recognize us as such.”