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Cherokee election ordinance nears finish line

Efforts to overhaul Cherokee’s election ordinance will come down to the wire following Tribal Council’s unanimous decision to table a vote on the legislation at its meeting Thursday, Dec. 6.

“Me and (Councilmember) Jeremy (Wilson) took this back to the community the other night and they said they would like this be tabled and have a public forum one evening where they can come in,” said Councilmember Bo Crowe, of Wolfetown, when the ordinance came up for discussion. “They agree with some of the changes that’s in the election ordinance, but they would like to come out and be able to have some input also in it. So, at this time, if it would be alright with the election board, if we might be able to set up an evening where we could put this out and get some community input on it.”

With the deadline looming to pass the ordinance, the suggestion met resistance from the election board.

“That’s really not alright,” said Denise Ballard, chair of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Board of Elections. “This is the last time council will meet to make these changes before an election year starts. We’ve been meeting on them since April. I think if people had been interested enough they would have requested that before now.”

The draft ordinance, which is currently 36 pages long, contains substantial changes from the law now on the books. Spurred by an elections controversy in 2017 that brought to light marked weaknesses in security surrounding tribal elections, Tribal Council has discussed the ordinance in work sessions and formal meetings throughout the year with an aim to pass something in time for the 2019 elections. 

But that job has proven difficult. The original law stated that the elections ordinance couldn’t be changed from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 in a year in which an election is held, but when Tribal Council found itself unable to make the Oct. 1 deadline it passed an amendment changing the timeframe to begin Jan. 1 instead. Now the new deadline is drawing closer and a final vote is still to come. 

Dec. 6 was Tribal Council’s last regularly scheduled meeting before the New Year, but Principal Chief Richard Sneed assured council members he would call an emergency session later this month so that they could hold a final vote, after the community meeting. 

“Today is only the sixth of December. We’ve got to the end of the month,” said Councilmember Perry Shell, of Big Cove. “I don’t see why we can’t just come in here and spend a day. The tribe may be getting all this time off, but we can do our job and come in here and work.”

Sneed said he would “absolutely” be willing to call an additional meeting. 

“I think from what I was  there are members of the community who want to have time to comment, but they can’t come here during the workday,” he said. “That’s absolutely fine.”

Scheduling could be tricky, Ballard warned, as the election board was already scheduled to fly out Dec. 10 for a weeklong training. 

“We’ll work with the calendars. We’ll work with you,” said Wachacha. “We don’t even know if we need to have all of the election board for the public forum.”

The hearing will be held 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the Cherokee Council House, with Tribal Council conducting a work session on the ordinance beginning at 9 a.m. that day. 

MORE: View the ordinance

  

A look at the draft ordinance

The new election ordinance is a work in progress, with substantial changes still possible pending a public hearing and final discussion and vote by council members. Here’s a peek at some of the changes proposed in the current draft. 

  • Being more than 90 days in default of a debt to the tribe would result in ineligibility to run for office. 
  • People protesting or appealing an election result or an election board decision to disqualify them from a run for office would have to pay a fee before filing a protest or appeal. 
  • In addition to ballot recounts requested by candidates who qualify based on the margin of the election outcome, the election board would have the ability to recount ballots from any election of its own initiative. 
  • The election board could hold a run-off election for a seat if it determines that election irregularities affected the election’s outcome or rendered the results unreliable. 
  • In the case of a vacancy in the chief, vice chief or Tribal Council offices, no special election would be held to select the replacement. The successor would be the person holding the office outlined in the ordinance as next in the line of succession. The draft ordinance elaborates on additional vacancy scenarios to a greater extent than the existing ordinance. 
  • Security cameras recording audio, visual or both would be required to run in polling places when voting is taking place, with records preserved for at least one year.
  • People who can’t go to the polling place because they’re incarcerated would be added to the list of people eligible for an absentee ballot. 
  • The election board would have the power to decline hearing protests if it feels it can make an informed decision based on the written protest and supporting materials. 
  • Anybody representing a person who is making an argument at an election board hearing would have to comply with Cherokee law regarding law practice on the Qualla Boundary. 
  • Election board members would be required to take an oath of office. 
  • Anybody making a false statement while under oath at an election board hearing could be prosecuted for perjury. 
  • A new section of the election code specifies unlawful campaign practices, such as buying or selling votes, tampering with ballots, falsifying voter registration, intimidating others to influence an election result, voting more than once in an election, marking another person’s ballot or campaigning within 100 yards of a polling place. 
  • The election board would be required to have a secure office with working security cameras and keys and codes available only to “authorized personnel.” Access to the offices would be logged remotely to allow for review of who has been in and out of them. 
  • All ballots and security seals would be required to be kept in a locked safe or cabinet with an access log. The election board would be required to log spoiled ballots. 
  • Poll books would be required to be reconciled and verified daily by two election board members. 

Be heard

A public hearing on the draft ordinance will be held 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the Cherokee Council House. All enrolled members are welcome to speak on the issue. Tribal Council will also hold a work session on the ordinance to begin at 9 a.m. the same day. The work session and the public hearing will be livestreamed and archived at www.livestream.com/accounts/10717024

 

 

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