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Postelection Statement on Cherokee Nation Elections, July 25, 1999

Tahlequah, July 25, 1999
The Carter Center accepted the invitation of The Cherokee Nation Election Commission in Oklahoma to observe the Cherokee Nation elections in May 1999, and at the invitation of the Commission agreed to return to observe the July 24 run-off elections for the Principal Chief, Deputy Chief and two of the 15 seats of the tribal council.

To date, The Carter Center has observed elections in some 16 countries including long-standing democracies such as Jamaica and Venezuela, and twice organized international delegations to observe elections in Georgia. We would like to acknowledge the Cherokee people for their commitment to a legacy of free and fair elections and thank them for welcoming our presence during this important event.

The Center met with the Election Commission, precinct officials, candidates and community leaders, and yesterday, our 11-member team deployed to each of the nine districts to observe the election process. Carter Center delegates visited all 32 precincts. Most undertook multiple visits to the precincts on a random schedule so that no one knew beforehand of their arrival. One delegate observed the processing and counting of absentee ballots and tracked events at the Commission. Observers carried out a systematic survey at each precinct, assessing compliance with opening, voting, activities around the polling sites, and closing procedures. This provided us with a comprehensive overview of election day and enabled us to identify any existing patterns and ensure that isolated incidents did not unintentionally become generalizations.

There were no watchers present as none of the candidates submitted names of any individuals to the Election Commission. Watchers play an important role as they allay fears and uncertainties about the process and increase voters' and candidates' confidence in the process. We recommend the Commission amend the current statute to guarantee the presence of watchers.

Overall the elections were conducted up to the highest standards with a few flaws which in our judgment had no impact on the outcome. All the precincts we observed opened on time, at 7:00 am. Every precinct had an inspector, a judge, a clerk and in most places a sergeant-at-arms. Most of the precinct officials had experience working in state elections and had also received training from the Cherokee Nation Election Commission.

Officials were hardworking, conscientious and helpful to us and the voters. We also found that they carried out their duties with professionalism, integrity and showed no political bias in the administration of their duties. Also, precinct officials had the necessary and adequate supplies except in a few cases were precincts did not have registration forms. Only one of the voting machines malfunctioned.

Although problems were marginal, the Election Commission continued to make improvements along the way. Concerns remain regarding the same issues we raised in our report on the Cherokee elections in general, which if corrected by the Commission will go a long way toward making it easier for citizens to participate in the process. We continue to believe that the single most important issue is the registration process which is duplicative and confusing to citizens and remain concerned by the low voter turn-out. Strategies to expand and improve voter education must be devised. Absentee voting can be made easier by eliminating notarization and allowing absentees to vote in person at the precincts on election day.

In conclusion, under the overall guidance of the Election Commission, the elections were well conducted, and clearly met professional standards. Our impression is that people now understand that the ballot is indeed secret and that this has gone a long way to increase confidence in the electoral system. The resolve of the Election Commission staff and the professional contribution of Automated Election Services of Albuquerque were clearly reflected in the conduct of the elections.

We believe that the importance of these elections to the Nation along with this increased confidence contributed to a voter turnout nearly equal that of the general elections in May, a rare occurrence in run-off elections anywhere. The Cherokee people made their collective will known via the ballot box and their voice elected a new administration.

We at The Carter Center will elaborate on these general findings in a final report that will incorporate previous suggestions, plus new issues that arose during these elections, which the Cherokee Nation may choose to explore for refining its electoral system. Should the process toward revision of the Constitution proceed apace, some of the suggestions should be taken up in that context.

When The Carter Center was invited to observe these elections, one of the factors that figured in the decision to accept the invitation was the sentiment within the Cherokee Nation that a free and fair election could contribute to the process of healing. Hopefully, that process will now begin.

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