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Cherokee Elections Continue in Tribal Court

The June 25 election for Cherokee Nation Chief between incumbent Chad “Corntassel” Smith and challenger Bill John Baker is now heading into its second week, with a storyline that has seen the numbers of unofficial, certified and recounted votes change at least three times. At press time, this election has also seen injunctions and appeals filed in the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court by both sides.

Smith was first elected to the office of Chief in 1999 and has served three previous terms. His opponent, Baker, is a three-term member of the Cherokee Nation tribal council. The Cherokee Nation has approximately 300,000 members, whose jurisdiction encompasses 14 counties in eastern Oklahoma.

Unofficial results for this election on June 26 showed Baker in the lead with 11 votes out of 14,000 cast. Upon certification of the votes by the Cherokee Nation Election Commission, Smith was officially the winner by 7 votes—7,609 for Smith and 7,602 for Baker.

Legal representatives from the Baker campaign filed an emergency injunction by relief in the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court on June 28 against the Election Commission, stating that the commission “has not turned over how the early vote was counted, a full count of the absentees or other relevant information,” according to a statement from the Baker campaign. “They have even refused to turn over a simple document showing how the vote broke down by precinct or county.”

A petition for a recount was then filed by the Baker campaign on June 29.

A recount of the votes for chief convened on June 30, with official numbers for the recount showing 7,613 votes cast for Baker and 7,347 votes cast for Smith, with Baker winning by 266 votes and who is at press time the Chief-elect.

The Smith campaign filed an injunction on July 1 and then an appeal on July 5 in Cherokee Nation Supreme Court asking judges to vacate certified results. Smith alleges in the appeal that “hundreds” of ballots were not counted by the Election Commission and that “such failure to count all ballots calls into question the validity of the entire recount.” Requests in the appeal include conducting the recount “by a reliable mechanical means” and to have observers and media present at each counting station. Other allegations in the Smith appeal include votes cast by non-Cherokee citizens.

“Even when I was ahead, my challenger and I always agreed that every vote should count,” Smith said in a statement issued by his campaign on July 1. “I hope that my challenger still feels this way and will join me calling for a proper accounting of all votes in this election, rather than the fatally flawed recount.”

A recent development in this story includes the resignation of Election Commission Chair Roger L. Johnson, effective July 5. As posted on the Cherokee Phoenix website, Johnson’s resignation letter states that “the perceptions of favoritism, fraud and incompetence resulting from irresponsible and inaccurate media reports subsequent to the unofficial election results announced early Sunday morning and throughout the process have unreasonably damaged my honor, character and integrity,” he wrote. “For me to continue as an effective Commissioner under these circumstances is impossible.”

The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court is scheduled to hear appeals and motions from the Smith and Baker campaigns at 8:30 a.m. on July 8.