An Oct. 10 runoff election to determine the winner of a disputed Tribal Council seat ended with a reversal of results from the original election.
While the two candidates were separated by only a handful of votes following the Sept. 7 General Election, the margin was much wider Oct. 10. Albert Rose beat challenger Ashley Sessions with 541 votes, or 58.7 percent, to her 381.
Sessions believes her loss was unjust and that there should never have been a runoff election to start with.
“I’m just kind of disappointed and really confused about the entire situation,” she said. “But I definitely think that it’s made our community and our people more aware of how bad the corruption is in our tribal government.”
Rose and challenger Ashley Sessions have been locked in a battle to represent the Birdtown community ever since preliminary results rolled in from the Sept. 7 General Election. Those results showed Sessions trailing Rose by only 12 votes, a margin of 0.7 percent.
When Sessions asked for a recount, election workers found a large number of early voting ballots that the machine had failed to count on election night. These uncounted ballots were largely the result of absentee ballots that had been changed to serve as early voting ballots when election workers ran out of early voting ballots on the last day of early voting. It was the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ first time offering early voting, and election workers underestimated the number of ballots they would need for each community.
The machine did not read the repurposed ballots, leading to a discrepancy between election night and recount results. The recount reversed the original outcome, with Sessions beating Rose by five votes.
“Whenever the recount took place, the chairman of the election board Denise Ballard, she assured me that the recount was final,” Sessions said. “She congratulated me on live TV.”
Rose, however, protested the recount results. Represented by attorney Rob Saunooke, he contended that the “mysteriously appearing” early voting ballots were unreliable. While all Tribal Council candidates in all communities received some additional votes when the discrepancy in Birdtown triggered a recount of all races, the increase in votes was largest in Birdtown. First-place finisher Boyd Owle received the largest boost in the recount, gaining 30 votes.
Rose said that the fact that unmarked early voting ballots were stored in an unlocked box raised suspicion that they could have been tampered with, though he offered no proof that they had. He also said that one person not eligible to vote in Birdtown, a relative of Sessions, had voted in the election.
The election board agreed with Rose and ordered a runoff election, but Sessions challenged the decision in Cherokee Supreme Court. Represented by Scott Jones, she argued that there was nothing mysterious about the initially uncounted ballots and that there was no objective proof that anything untoward capable of affecting the election’s outcome had occurred. However, the court ultimately upheld the board’s decision.
The method of conducting the runoff election was markedly different from that of the General Election. In the runoff, voters were choosing one of two candidates to represent them, rather than selecting two of four like they had in the General Election. The runoff was on a Tuesday rather than on a Thursday, as for regularly scheduled elections.
However, the biggest difference between the two elections was that the runoff allowed no opportunity for absentee or early voting. Some tribal members who live or work away from the Qualla Boundary had made special trips to vote Sept. 7 or ordered absentee ballots to participate.
During the General Election, Sessions did not receive any absentee votes, but according to recount results she received 93 early votes, 63 percent more than the 57 that Rose received. Rose received two absentee votes.
The election issue has been a contentious one in the mist of an already tense political climate in Cherokee. During the controversial impeachment of former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert in May, Rose had been consistently pro-impeachment, voting to remove Lambert from office and also testifying during the hearing. Sessions, meanwhile, had been vocally anti-impeachment.
The General Election Sept. 7 swept many pro-impeachment candidates out of office. Rose is one of only three pro-impeachment incumbents who regained a seat on Tribal Council. Seven of the nine pro-impeachment councilmembers had run for re-election. Meanwhile, of the two anti-impeachment councilmembers who ran for re-election, both were the top vote-getters in their communities.
Sessions called her experience running for office as “the biggest roller coaster ride,” and said, while she does plan to remain an active voice in tribal government she’s not sure if she will put her name out there as a candidate in 2019.
“It’s definitely going from making history being the first woman in 60 years to win council in Birdtown to being the first person ever to have a runoff and have an election taken from them,” she said. “It’s definitely been an adventure.”
Rose did not return multiple calls requesting comment. He was not present during Annual Council Monday, Oct. 16, and queries to the Tribal Operations Program asking when his swearing-in might take place were not returned as of press time.