Cherokee election results overturned

AP News
Posted: Jun 27, 2011 7:53 PM
Cherokee election results overturned

Officials with one of the nation's largest American Indian tribes reversed unofficial election results Monday and declared the longtime chief the winner of a bitter, close race.

The Cherokee Election Commission said Principal Chief Chad Smith had defeated longtime councilman Bill John Baker and won re-election to a fourth term by seven votes. Unofficial results released Sunday showed Baker unseating Smith by 11 votes.

The Cherokee Nation is Oklahoma's largest American Indian tribe and one of the nation's biggest, with a membership approaching 300,000 people. The Tahlequah-based tribe has a 14-county jurisdiction in eastern Oklahoma, although many of its members live elsewhere.

The campaign between Smith and Baker was often contentious, with the two men combining to spend nearly a half-million dollars as they sought the chief's job. Turnout for Saturday's election was considerably higher than in 2007, when Smith won a third term as 13,903 voters cast a ballot.

Commission clerk Joyce Gourd said she wasn't there when commission members certified the election results and didn't know why the unofficial results were overturned. The final count was 7,609 votes for Smith and 7,602 votes for Baker, she said.

Unofficial results had shown Baker the winner with 7,600 votes, while Smith had 7,589.

Smith, who had announced plans to challenge the election results shortly before they were overturned, said he was pleased with the results and believes his re-election vindicates his leadership of the Cherokee Nation over the past 12 years.

"We're doing very well in creating jobs and health care," Smith said. "We're very happy. The staff is just jubilant."

Baker, a Cherokee Nation councilman for 12 years, said he expects to ask for a recount. Baker has until Wednesday to make the request.

"I am obviously shocked that after an arduous and complete vote count that had our campaign in the lead against an entrenched incumbent with all the powers of the government at his disposal today some numbers were found to be incorrect," Baker said in the statement issued late Monday.

"I ask that all Cherokees and specifically my thousands of supporters stay calm as we get to the bottom of this election," he said. "We are a proud people who believe in honesty and transparency. And most importantly the integrity of our Constitution and nation must never be in question as that could also risk our sovereignty."

Smith, who was first elected in 1999 when he unseated Joe Byrd, who took office after the retirement of longtime chief Wilma Mankiller, focused on his record during the heated campaign against Baker.

Smith said he helped create 5,000 "stable jobs" over the past decade in casinos, health care, education, information technology and other fields. He said most of the jobs went to Cherokees but some went to members of other tribes.

Baker refuted those numbers, claiming that Cherokees actually lost 1,000 jobs during Smith's tenure, and said more needed to be done to replace the tribe's members. Baker also accused the tribe of announcing a jobs initiative in response to his campaign speeches, though Smith said the initiative had long been in the planning stages.

During the race, Baker also criticized Smith for using a tribal airplane for travel and called for the tribe to spend more of its gaming revenues on health care. Smith said he followed a budget approved by the tribal council in using the tribe's twin-engine plane and noted that the tribe went from spending $18 million a year on health care in 1999 to more than $300 million annually today.

In spite of the tense campaign rhetoric, Smith said he believes any animosity between the two men has been overstated.

"At least on my part it was," Smith said.