Carter Center Commends Muscogee (Creek) Nation on Smooth Electoral Process

Following letters of invitation from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board and principal chief, The Carter Center deployed a small team of three international electoral experts to observe elections in Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN) for principal chief, second chief, and members of the National Council. The Center deployed observers to the Nov. 2, 2019, primary election and the Dec. 14, 2019, general election. The Center released a preliminary statement following the Nov. 2 primary. This statement provides a summary of observations of the Dec. 14 general election.

As it did for the Nov. 2 primary, the Carter Center team observed early in-person voting for the general election, which took place on Dec. 11 and 12, visiting all four early-voting precincts. In addition, the Center accompanied the election manager and Lighthorse (Muscogee (Creek) Nation police) as they delivered sensitive electoral material from the four early-voting stations to Lighthorse headquarters at the end of each early-voting day.

On election day, the team observed the polling process at all of Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s 18 in-person voting precincts. Carter Center observers also accompanied members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board and Lighthorse police when they collected absentee ballots from the U. S. post office in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and transported them to the MCN government building, where processing of those ballots would take place. The Carter Center observed the verification and counting of the absentee ballots, the receipt of election materials from precincts after the polls had closed, and the tabulation of electoral results. In addition, Carter Center observers met with members of the election office, spoke with candidates and campaign officials, and with MCN agencies, including the Citizenship Office, Historic and Cultural Preservation, and Youth Services.

The electoral process continues, as an electoral dispute-resolution process allows for the filing of challenges from Dec. 16 – 20. As the process is ongoing, the following are only preliminary observations that complement the initial statement issued following the Nov. 2 primary. The Carter Center will release a more comprehensive final report after the conclusion of the electoral process.

Results of the Nov. 2 primary were certified following the challenge period (which ended on Nov. 9), during which no complaints or petitions were submitted. On Nov. 7, an injunction involving absentee ballots that had been filed in advance of the Nov. 2 preliminary election was dismissed by the courts.

Voter registration was re-opened after the Nov. 2 primary election primary and closed on Nov. 19 for absentee voting and on Dec. 4 for in-person voters.

These developments paved the way for preparations for the general election. The two highest-ranking candidates for principal chief and the two highest-ranking candidates for National Council representatives for five districts were included on the ballot in the December general election.

Changes to the Legal Framework for the December General Election
New legislation related to elections was passed by MCN’s National Council on Nov. 16, between the November primary and December general election.1 The new legislation addressed three main areas. First, it amended the electoral code to require that watchers be a citizen and registered voter of Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which is consistent with international best practice.

The new legislation also amended the electoral code to require that in the case of a recount, only the votes in the contested race be recounted, not the votes for the other races. This amendment may need additional consideration, given that votes for all races (principal chief, second chief, and National Council seats) are cast on the same ballot paper, rather than separate ballots, making it possible that an issue that might affect one race might affect others on the same ballot paper.

Finally, the legislation created a new law that made it a felony to solicit or collect an absentee ballot from another person. This law appeared to be in response to perceptions of strategies implemented by the Steve Bruner campaign for the September and November primary elections.

Summary of Observations
The Carter Center commends the people of Muscogee (Creek) Nation on what appears so far to have been a smooth electoral process. Polling staff conducted their responsibilities with professionalism in precincts where The Carter Center observed, both during early voting and on election day. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board commissioners and staff once again performed their responsibilities with integrity and competence.

The Electoral Process. The Carter Center observers were pleased that some of the preliminary recommendations stemming from the Center’s observation of the November primary election were implemented by the nation’s electoral authorities, which improved the electoral process. These positive changes include strengthening poll worker training and introducing specialized training for different members of the polling staff.

MCN election officials introduced a binder or polling manual for the December general election that contained practical information and instructions, including detailed information on procedures and important forms. The binder of materials was well-organized, and poll workers expressed great appreciation for the introduction of this tool. This is a positive step in codifying and formalizing operational procedures, which enhances the consistency of the operations in the different precincts.

Procedures intended to bolster the documentation of the chain of custody of sensitive electoral materials were further strengthened for the December general election.

Secrecy of the vote for disabled voters was improved in the December general election with the introduction of a new table-top voting screen that gave disabled and elderly voters the option to complete their ballots in secret while sitting at tables rather than standing at voting booths.

Election Day. The polling process proceeded smoothly, both during early voting and on election day. The changes made following the November primary contributed to more efficient operations.

Counting and Tabulation. The counting of absentee ballots and the tabulation of election results was conducted by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board with assistance from Automated Election Services (AES) in the presence of Carter Center observers and several watchers representing candidates. As in the primary, the MCN Citizenship Office was present during the counting of absentee ballots to help ensure that absentee voters were verified as MCN citizens so that their votes could be counted. The process was more streamlined and efficient than on Nov. 2. It also was improved by increased communication with watchers and observers to ensure better understanding and more effective observation as different steps of the counting and tabulation process were conducted.

Preliminary Results. Final results of the elections have not yet been released by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board, and a complaint period is currently open and will conclude on Friday, Dec. 20. Although official results have not yet been released, preliminary results indicate that voter turnout was similar to that for the November primary, with 5,178 total votes reported in the principal chief race (compared to 5,137 who voted in the principal chief race in the November primary). There were 18,125 registered voters for the Dec. general election.

Preliminary results that are publicly available on the website of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation show David Hill in the lead with 66 percent of the vote, and Steve Bruner with 34 percent of the vote. Bruner conceded with a public message on social media thanking his supporters and congratulating Hill.

Watchers. Candidate “watchers” had a limited presence in the precincts on election day and during the absentee-ballot processing. The Carter Center saw watchers for one principal chief candidate (Bruner) at two polling precincts on election day, and none at precincts during early voting. Watchers for principal chief candidate David Hill were present during the processing and counting of absentee ballots.

Unfortunately, the watcher designated by principal chief candidate Steve Bruner to observe the counting of absentee ballots was not allowed to witness the proceedings. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board authorities applied a strict interpretation of the law and asked the watcher to leave, noting that she had arrived after the start of work and after they had issued an oath to other watchers present. The restrictive provisions regarding candidate watchers and the fact that watchers for only one of the two principal chief candidates was allowed to observe the counting of absentee ballots limited the transparency provided by monitoring. In addition, unfortunately, no independent citizen observers were present to witness the process during early voting or on election day, which also has been the case in most previous Muscogee (Creek) Nation elections and appears also to be true for many other elections in Native America.

The Carter Center respectfully offers the following recommendations for additional improvements for future electoral processes. Additional recommendations will be made in a final report following the conclusion of the electoral process.

Review and Reform the Electoral Code. MCN’s next National Council should conduct a comprehensive review of the electoral code involving as many stakeholders as possible. The current electoral code contains some gaps, contradictions, and, in some places, too much detail that is out of date and restrictive. Among the areas of the code to review are provisions related to watchers and observers (with the goal of increasing transparency), election management structures, polling, and counting procedures.

Strengthen Election Management. The fact that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board administers the elections as an independent agency, with operational support from the election office, is a positive attribute in Muscogee (Creek) Nation and consistent with international standards. MCN should take steps to further strengthen the election manager’s office administratively and operationally to further increase national ownership of electoral processes.

Develop Comprehensive Election Procedures and a Manual. The creation of the binder with instructions and forms was a welcome and positive addition to the December general election. The Carter Center recommends that this be further developed into a manual of comprehensive operational procedures for use in future elections. Such procedures do not need to be extensive or overly complicated but should be rigorous enough to ensure consistency across the different polling sites. These procedures – including those for early voting, election day voting, and processing of absentee ballots – should be made public in advance of future elections to increase awareness and transparency. They should be presented in written form to all electoral staff, including poll workers, as well as to candidates.

Increase Voter and Civic Education. MCN should increase and amplify voter awareness and information efforts, not just through social media but also through other means. The Center recommends greater efforts to reach out to tribal members to encourage participation in the electoral process. Partnerships between the electoral authorities and different agencies such as the MCN Youth Council, public relations department, MCN Citizenship Office, and others, would be helpful in this regard.

Increase Voter Registration. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board and Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Office should strengthen efforts to increase voter registration, including through increased publicity, voter education drives, increased coordination with other offices, and greater outreach. Consideration could be given to publicity and awareness campaigns that feature respected leaders and celebrities.

Observation Background:

The Carter Center conducts its election observation work in accordance with the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Observers, which provide guidelines for professional and impartial methods of international election observation. As an international non-governmental organization, the Center assesses electoral processes against the host nation’s constitution, election laws, and other pertinent legislation.

[1] National Council Act (NCA) 19-141, Nove. 16, 2019.