Cherokee Nation court tosses election for chief

JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS - Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the results of a disputed election to determine the chief of Oklahoma's largest Native American tribe following weeks of legal wrangling and multiple vote tallies that each came out with a different number.

The court's ruling means a new election will be held in Tahlequah, although a date was not set by the five-justice court. At stake is the leadership of 300,000 Cherokees, one of the largest tribes in the U.S. Uncertainty about the accuracy of the results of the June 25 election and repeated flip-flopping in terms of the declared winner in the close and bitter contest has eroded confidence among Cherokee voters.

In its two-page final order, the court ruled that it was impossible to determine with a mathematical certainty the winner of the election, which had drawn comparisons to the recount in the 2000 presidential election in Florida involving Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Bush ultimately won Florida and its electoral votes by fewer than 200 votes out of 6 million cast.

In the Cherokee election, tribal councilman Bill John Baker has twice been declared winner, but so has his opponent, incumbent Principal Chief Chad Smith. The official results of the most recent recount put Smith ahead by four votes Tuesday, but that's one fewer than in the unofficial results announced Sunday.

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, which is important given that many members live outside Oklahoma. The chief also oversees the tribe's casinos, health care facilities and thousands of the nation's employees.

The campaign between Baker and Smith has been nasty at times, with the candidates accusing each other of negative campaigning. At odds on almost every issue, they dueled 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 years.

The vitriol was evident again Thursday, with Baker accusing "Smith and his insiders" of carving up casino money, cutting health care and shaking down "our good people for money to pay for his campaign," and Smith saying Baker "didn't care what he said, what he did or who he hurt as long as he won the election."

"Throughout this election, every time all the ballots were properly counted and tallied, I had the most votes," Smith said. "Because my margin of victory was so narrow, the court has decided a new election is required. I welcome the new election, and I'm confident that when the ballots are counted after the new election, I'll still have the most votes."

Baker's legal team had suggested to the court that up to 26 ballots out of more than 15,000 cast had been spoiled because they were improperly notarized, filled out in pencil instead of pen or had erasure marks that cast doubt over a voter's true intent. Tim Baker, Baker's attorney and brother, argued that if those ballots were tossed out, there was no mathematical certainty that the count was true.

Members of the Cherokee Nation praised the ruling.

"We got another chance in the fight," said Billy Bob Dougherty, who supports Baker. "We elected a chief, and then the people were denied that. It was just a travesty in my opinion."

Smith supporter Sarah Holt said a new election was the best way to clear up any discrepancies. "It's just one more chance for the voters to decide what they believe is best for the Cherokee Nation," she said.

Baker called on Smith to set a new election date immediately, and proposed Aug. 13 — a day before the tribe's new chief is inaugurated.

"What's important today is we finally take back our Nation from Smith and his insiders," Baker said. "By Cherokee law, the chief determines the next election date. Chad Smith must not continue to cling to power and put himself before our nation."