Mixed drink referendum passes easily in Cherokee

Cherokee votes for a referendum question concerning sale of mixed drinks on the Qualla Boundary. File photo Cherokee votes for a referendum question concerning sale of mixed drinks on the Qualla Boundary. File photo

What was once an extremely contentious issue in Cherokee now appears to be fairly noncontroversial, as a referendum vote seeking approval for issuing mixed drink permits on the Qualla Boundary sailed through with 68.3% approval Sept. 7. 


In total, 3,511 people voted on the question: “Do you support allowing the Tribal ABC Commission to issue mixed beverage permits for the sale of mixed beverages on tribal lands to qualified establishments including but not limited to restaurants, hotels, convention centers and non-profit organizations?” 

The referendum drew 45 more voters than the number participating in the principal chief’s election but slightly fewer than the number voting in the cannabis referendum or for vice chief.

The 68.3% passage set a new high-water mark for tribal members’ endorsement of loosened alcohol restrictions. For decades, any attempt to allow alcohol sales failed completely — Harrah’s Cherokee Casino was dry for the first 12 years of its existence. In 2009, voters gave approval for alcohol sales on casino grounds, but not anywhere else on the Qualla Boundary. Referenda in 2012 and 2018 seeking to expand availability failed. But by 2021 public opinion had shifted. Three measures on the ballot that year — allowing beer and wine sales by the glass, retail beer sales and an ABC package store — all received majority support, with approval rates ranging from 57.6% to 62.7%.

“I voted for the alcohol by the drink,” said a 53-year-old Birdtown woman interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News on Election Day. “Hopefully maybe we’ll get some better restaurants in here.”

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However, of eight voters SMN interviewed in the parking lot of Cherokee’s only grocery store, three said they were against the mixed drink referendum — of those, two said they would still support legalizing cannabis.

“At the end of the day, I remember my grannies, my aunties all been talking, you know, saying we don’t need alcohol in this reservation,” said a 21-year-old Wolfetown man. “They said cannabis was a different story.”

Another Wolfetown voter, age 60, said he wouldn’t support either referendum, though he seemed to expect the alcohol measure to pass.

“I don’t like the alcoholism — the Native peoples always fought with alcoholism,” he said. “But it’s here. You can get it right over there. We’re selling hard liquor right now. So mixed drinks, you know, I don’t know — maybe it’ll bring in some better restaurants. A lot of people don’t want to go eat at the casino.”

While the measure passed overwhelmingly, it requires a 30% voter turnout to be valid.

The EBCI Board of Elections has not yet released voter turnout data, but the referendum likely met that threshold. The 2021 alcohol referendum drew just under 2,900 votes, good for a turnout exceeding 40% — an additional 600 people voted in this year’s alcohol referendum.

According to tribal law, if a referendum vote has met the voter turnout requirement, the outcome “shall” be certified by the Board of Elections and “shall be deemed a binding action or law duly passed and ratified by the Principal Chief.” Election results will be presented to Tribal Council for certification on Monday, Oct. 2.

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