Results flip-flopping in Cherokee chief election

July 18, 2011 - 6:14 PM
Cherokee Election

In this July 11, 2011 file photo, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith speaks in a news conference about continued election uncertainty in Tahlequah, Okla. Election commissioners for Oklahoma’s largest Indian tribe will try again to determine who it will inaugurate as chief next month with another recount, which will begin Saturday. (AP Photo/Tulsa World, Mike Simons, File)

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Since an 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.

Unofficial and official results, along with two recounts, have come up with four different tallies in the close and bitter race between Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith and longtime councilman Bill John Baker. The second recount ended Sunday with Smith ahead by five votes, but that result has yet to be declared official.

The election has eroded the confidence of many voters, who are wondering how officials can come up with a different number each time they count, and the extended wrangling and flip-flopping declarations of a winner have some wondering whether the matter will be resolved by the Aug. 14 inauguration. The situation has drawn comparisons to the famed recount in the 2000 presidential election in Florida involving Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

"Their faith in our election system is rocked," said Chuck Hoskin Jr., a Cherokee tribal councilman and top adviser to Baker's campaign. "We've got to get this first question answered quickly: Why can't we count the ballots?"

At stake is the leadership of some 300,000 Cherokees, many living outside Oklahoma. The principal chief controls business and gaming enterprises that provide jobs for thousands of Cherokees amid high unemployment, and he oversees rural health care facilities and other services. Similar to a U.S. president, the chief administers a $600 million annual tribal budget, has veto power and sets the tribe's national agenda.

Baker and Smith waged bare-knuckle campaigns in the weeks leading up to the June 25 election, with each accusing the other of negative campaigning and resorting to questionable campaign tactics. At odds on almost every issue, they fought over how many jobs the nation was creating for the Cherokee people, spending on health care and even Smith's use of a twin-engine airplane the tribe has owned for 38 years.

Initial election results had Baker unseating Smith by 11 votes. But when the Cherokee Election Commission announced the official results on June 27, Smith was declared the winner of a fourth term by seven votes. A recount done at Baker's request put him ahead by 266 votes, before a second recount done at Smith's request put him ahead again.

The different counts have come mostly through human error in tallying votes and machines improperly reading handfuls of ballots. On Tuesday, the Cherokee Supreme Court will meet to — in Hoskin's words — "sort out what is frankly a mess."

"Even though there's been multiple counts, there just seems to be a lot more questions than answers," he said.

The court could certify the weekend's election results and declare Smith the winner, hear more evidence from attorneys representing each campaign or order a new election, which would almost certainly drag the matter out past inauguration day. The court could also delay making a decision and take the matter under advisement.

Because the tribe is a sovereign nation, both candidates have indicated they are unlikely to take the matter to federal court, fearing it would set a bad precedent.

"I think everyone feels like the sooner that we're able to resolve this, the better, and I think the (Cherokee) court will make every effort to do so," said Melanie Knight, Secretary of State of the nation and an adviser to the Smith campaign.

The candidates have both said they feel the dispute has shaken confidence in the election process, and some voters said that too.

"I put my heart and soul into this campaign, and now, because the numbers have changed so much, I know I'm not the only one who thinks their vote was not counted," said Dani Saloli-Mackey, a Baker supporter.

Gayle Ross, who voted for Smith, said the first recount — in which some ballots weren't included — showed fundamental flaws in the process, but she believed the second recount bolstered the validity of the official results released June 27, which showed Smith ahead by seven votes.

"Our process is working," Ross said. "I wish people would take a chill pill. The heated rhetoric is not contributing to the confidence of the Cherokee people."