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Postelection Statement on Cherokee Nation Election, May 23, 1999

Tahlequah, OK...Earlier this month, The Carter Center accepted the invitation of the Cherokee Nation Election Commission to visit Oklahoma and observe the May 22, 1999 elections for Principal Chief, Deputy Chief and 15 Tribal Council members. After studying Cherokee electoral law and making logistical preparations, we brought a 10-person assessment team to Tahlequah last week, spending several days discussing the electoral system with Election Commission officials, candidates, and community leaders.

The Carter Center has conducted election assessments in the state of Georgia, and in 15 foreign countries, including longstanding democracies such as Jamaica and Venezuela. We want to thank the Cherokee people for welcoming our presence as they celebrated this civic occasion.

Yesterday, Carter Center observers dispersed to each of the nine districts to assess the election process. An additional observer watched the processing and counting of absentee ballots, and tracked events at the Commission. Carter Center delegates visited all 32 precincts, half more than once, on a random schedule that ensured no one had foreknowledge of our arrival. Observers carried out a systematic survey at each precinct, completing forms summarizing adherence to opening and closing procedures as well as the general vote process. This information provided a comprehensive view of election day. We therefore were able to ensure that isolated incidents did not inadvertently become generalizations that could falsely characterize the election, and conversely, that patterns could be readily identified.

All precincts opened on time, at 7:00am sharp. Officials had ballots and other necessary materials, and proceeded efficiently to set up their equipment and complete the necessary paperwork. Every precinct had an inspector, a judge and a clerk hard at work, and in the majority of cases, a sergeant-at-arms. Most of these officials had experience working in state elections, and all but one was trained for the Cherokee election specifically. Numerous officials live locally and recognized voters on sight, such that a strong sense of community set the tone. Officials were unfailingly courteous and helpful to us and to the public whom they served. We found election officials to be dedicated workers whose behavior reflected integrity and commonsense, and who showed no political bias in the administration of their duties.

We encountered watchers in 20 precincts, and seven of these had two watchers. In a few precincts, watchers were assigned but did not report for duty. Watchers were frequently at a disadvantage in following election activities because they were often seated too far from the table to observe the voter identification process, and were not permitted to speak to election officials. Watchers also lacked the in-depth training election officials were given, and did not always have a clear conception of their role. Nonetheless, watchers faithfully recorded noteworthy events of the day, providing helpful information to Carter Center observers about what occurred prior to our arrival. In our experience, having local poll watchers is good electoral practice.

The standard operating procedures for election day were well-conceived, broadly-understood and closely followed. In a few areas, such as North Tulsa and Sequoyah, some voters waited up to an hour to cast their ballots due to high registration numbers, but these were the exceptions that prove the rule. The vast majority of voters obtained a ballot within a few minutes of arrival, and successfully marked that ballot and entered it into the machine for counting. Ballot privacy was rigorously maintained in every precinct we visited, so that even in a competitive campaign climate, voters could feel secure in the knowledge that their vote was secret. Voters requiring assistance received it, and the proper record was kept.

All elections suffer minor irregularities.

Perhaps the best test of an electoral system is how officials respond to the problems that arise. In Grove, where the vote tabulation machine malfunctioned, Automated Elections Systems immediately dispatched a technician who repaired the machine within a few hours. Meanwhile, emergency procedures came smoothly into place so that voting continued. In Westville, election officials recognized early that they were likely to run out of ballots. When they informed the Election Commission, it promptly sent additional ballots, thereby averting a potential crisis.

In no case that we know of was someone whose name appeared in the precinct book denied the right to vote. Rather, most difficulties were linked to voters not listed in the precinct book. The majority of these would-be voters understood that the list had been revised, accepted a registration form, and said they planned to register for future elections. Others had inadvertently come to the wrong precinct, but were easily directed by officials referencing the complete voter list. In most precincts, however, a handful of voters cast challenged ballots.

Those who came to the precinct and did not get to vote may naturally feel disappointed. However, we wish to emphasize that the overall number of challenged ballots was low, well within accepted norms for American politics. Ironically, the problem resulted in part from efforts to improve the electoral system. The recent registration process succeeded in registering more Cherokee than in the past, and in purging the names of deceased persons and other ineligible voters from the list, but it left some individuals unaware that they were not registered. We hope that those individuals will now register to vote, that disappointment will not yield complacency, but instead a strong conviction to participate.

We recommend that a greater effort be made to incorporate citizens on the registration list by reducing barriers to registration and expanding voter education. The majority of adult Cherokee are not registered to vote, and this unusually low registration rate concerns our team experts. At the same time, we were impressed by the high turnout among registered voters, roughly half of whom chose to cast a ballot. Prior to the elections, we heard concerns that voters had lost faith in the electoral system, but this encouraging turnout suggests that voters know their vote counts, especially where elections are decided by small margins.

In conclusion, the May 22, 1999 Cherokee Nation election was well-run, and clearly met professional standards for an acceptable process. Some honest mistakes were made, but these should not distract us from the very positive big picture. The determination of the Election Commission to run a good election, the dedication of the Commission staff and the highly professional contribution of Automated Election Systems of Albuquerque, clearly shone through. The Cherokee people made their collective will known via the ballot box, and have an opportunity to construct majority support around their leaders during the run-off election. We at The Carter Center will elaborate on these general findings in a report that will emphasize practical, positive options the Cherokee Nation might choose to explore for refining its electoral system

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