JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS,Associated Press
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the results of a disputed election to determine the chief of Oklahoma's largest Native American tribe following weeks of legal wrangling and multiple vote tallies that each came out with a different number.
The court's ruling means a new election will be held in Tahlequah, although a date was not set by the five-justice court. At stake is the leadership of 300,000 Cherokees, one of the largest tribes in the U.S. Uncertainty about the accuracy of the results of the June 25 election and repeated flip-flopping in terms of the declared winner has eroded confidence among Cherokee voters.
In its two-page final order, the court ruled that it was impossible to determine the winner of the election, which had drawn comparisons to the recount in the 2000 presidential election in Florida involving Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Bush ultimately won Florida and its electoral votes by fewer than 200 votes out of 6 million cast.
In the Cherokee election, tribal councilman Bill John Baker has twice been declared winner, but so has his opponent, incumbent Principal Chief Chad Smith. The official results of the most recent recount put Smith ahead by four votes Tuesday, but that's one fewer than in the unofficial results announced Sunday.
The principal chief, similar to a U.S. president, administers a $600 million annual tribal budget, has veto power and sets the tribe's national agenda, which is important given that many members live outside Oklahoma.
"Throughout this election, every time all the ballots were properly counted and tallied, I had the most votes," Smith said after Thursday's ruling. "Because my margin of victory was so narrow, the court has decided a new election is required. I welcome the new election, and I'm confident that when the ballots are counted after the new election, I'll still have the most votes."
An aide to Baker said a statement from his campaign would be issued within the hour.
In closing statements before the court late Tuesday, Baker's legal team suggested that up to 26 ballots out of more than 15,000 cast had been spoiled because they were improperly notarized, filled out in pencil instead of pen or had erasure marks that cast doubt over a voter's true intent.
Tim Baker, Baker's attorney, argued that if those ballots were tossed out, there was no mathematical certainty that the count was true.
The bitter back-and-forth between the candidates isn't merely a reflection of the tension generated by a close margin. The campaign between the two was hard-fought and sometimes nasty, with the candidates accusing each other of negative campaigning while both resorted to questionable tactics.
At odds on almost every issue, they dueled over how many jobs the nation was creating for the Cherokee people, spending on health care and even Smith's use of a twin-engine airplane the tribe has owned for years.