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Hicks declared winner in contested Cherokee vote

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Supreme Court ruled Saturday that a new election will not be held on the Qualla Boundary, putting to rest a month-long debate filled with accusations of eligible voters being turned away from the polls.

In a tight race for chief — decided by a mere 14-vote margin — 21 protests had been filed with the Election Board.

The court voted to reject a lawsuit filed by principal chief candidate Patrick Lambert and instead upheld a decision by the Board of Elections to dismiss 21 protests filed over voting irregularities. Incumbent Chief Michell Hicks was sworn in for another four-year term on Monday, Oct. 1.

Lambert said he took the appeals to the Supreme Court because he didn’t agree with the Election Board’s apparent decision to ignore irregularities that occurred in the election.

“Without being able to prove that it affected the outcome, they denied the protests. While they found there were irregularities, they simply said, ‘too bad.’ That’s unsettling,” said Lambert.

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Hicks applauded the decision to reject the appeals.

“I said all along that I have confidence in the election board and in the folks that represent the election board and that they would make the decision that would put this election in the mode of being fair,” he said.

The majority of protests came from problems in the Wolfetown precinct. During the Sept. 6 election, names of registered voters did not appear on poll books at the voting site. As a result, as many as 60 people could have been turned away from the polls in Wolfetown, Lambert’s attorney has said.

In the Supreme Court’s decision, it was acknowledged that 13 people claimed they couldn’t vote as a result of being turned away. The court said five had actually been allowed to vote, and one attempted to register too late. Of the remaining seven, even if the votes had been for Lambert, Hicks still would have won by a margin of six. The Court stated this margin was evidence that another vote wasn’t required.

In other cases, names of voters who weren’t on the voter registration list were added as they showed up to the polls. The Supreme Court ruled that since these people were still allowed to vote, “this properly ensured that the right to vote could be exercised.”

Additionally, some of the protests alleged that several absentee ballots were illegally cast because absentee voters were allowed to vote past the deadline.

The Board of Elections decided to cast out some of the absentee votes. This decision, along with a recount, brought the margin from an original 30 votes separating Lambert and Hicks to just 14.

The Supreme Court stated in its decision that because of this margin of victory, it would be “unnecessary to review how many absentee votes were properly allowed or improperly allowed.”

Clerk of Court Heather Panther testified in a Sept. 19 hearing that the elections office received phone calls throughout the day notifying them of problems at Wolfetown.

Panther went on to say a computer problem caused incomplete voter lists to appear in Wolfetown.

Lambert said he didn’t push for another election because he thought he was the rightful winner, but because it was the right thing to do.

“There’s been a couple of people that say, ‘be a man, take your loss.’ I understand that sentiment. If I had been defeated by two votes and everything was in all appearances on the straight up and up, I wouldn’t have had a word to say. The issue here to me is more about what is right and wrong,” he said.

Lambert, though, said the Supreme Court appeal would be his last attempt to protest the election, since he wasn’t aware of further avenues to pursue his appeals.

That comes as welcome news to Hicks, who is ready to be done with the whole mess.

“The election is over with and the people of Cherokee have spoken. It’s time to move on,” he said.

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