Election Commission hones reform wish list
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation’s elected leaders have narrowed a list of reform suggestions for consideration by the Tribal Council, which will also offer its own suggestions.
According to the Election Commission, three “major” revisions to Legislative Act 12-16, which governs tribal elections, focus on a dropbox, early voting and challenged ballots cast by citizens who assert they are eligible to vote in a particular district but do not appear on a precinct list.
Currently, challenged votes are counted or deemed invalid following a post-election probe of each case.
“As everybody knows, the challenged ballots are always a problem in that it takes a lot of time to go through them,” EC attorney Harvey Chaffin said.
The recommendation is to hold and not count challenged ballots “if there’s not enough of them to change the outcome of the election or a runoff,” he said.
“Because if you counted all of them for one candidate, you still wouldn’t change the results,” Chaffin added. “That’s something the Council may or may not be interested in. But it’s a suggestion that a lot of commissioners have made over the years, and a lot of the states do it that way now.”
The EC also wants to nix large, last-minute drop-box submissions from “ballot harvesters.”
“Even in this last election, candidates that were so adamant against ballot harvesting, or spoke out openly in their campaigns, came in and dropped a couple hundred or more at a time,” Commissioner Carolyn Allen said.
Chaffin said an influx of ballots on election night “slows down the process because if the commission gets several hundred drops at 7 o’clock, it takes several hours to process those.”
“So the change that has been recommended is that they do not have a dropbox,” he said. “Everybody would be required to go prior to 12 o’clock on Saturday to the post office and drop them in the post office box. We’d pick up the ones that are dropped at the post office before 2 o’clock on Saturday. That gives all afternoon to work on processing those ballots.”
After the drop-box deadline, citizens have other voting options, Allen said.
“From that point on, the voter still has another way to vote by going to the precinct,” she added. “So we have not taken their right away to vote.”
Commissioners also hope to replace the term “in-person” absentee voting with “early walk-in” voting.
“People get confused about in-person absentee voting,” Chaffin said. “The state and about everybody else calls it early voting or early walk-in voting. So everywhere that we were talking about what you call in-person absentee in the old law, we’ve changed that too early walk-in absentee. We think that will eliminate some confusion.”
Issues addressed by the EC’s recommendations “are basically on things that have come up during the election cycle that created a problem there wasn’t a good answer to,” Chaffin said, adding that revisions require approval from the Tribal Council. “The Council is the one that makes the decision. We just give recommendations to them.”
Councilors and the CN attorney general’s office will also make their recommendations for change.
“It’s a priority in our office,” Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo said. “We understand that there need to be election code revisions, specifically our office because we were involved in so many of the issues that come up. The area of campaign finance, dealing with PACs and dark money and those types of things that we have had to deal with are complicated. Our code has kind of failed to keep up with other state and federal areas. So trying to write a law to address those things takes a lot of time.”
Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said many of his peers have requested election-related revisions.
“What usually takes place every two years is you have an election, then you have the Council members come on board with those codes and policies, and it’s OK then,” Byrd said. “But six months to a year down the road, we go ‘wait a minute now, we have issues here.’”
Councilors have expressed interest in forming either an eight-person election reform workgroup or a larger sub-committee. Commissioners, councilors, attorneys and others are expected to address revisions during the Oct. 31 Rules Committee meeting.