CNHI News Service
Cherokee Freedmen descendants who expect notification about voting in the upcoming special election for principal chief may have a long wait ahead of them.
William Austin, a Muskogee resident and Freedmen descendant, attended a special meeting of the Cherokee Nation Election Commission Tuesday morning, and asked the panel how he would be notified that he won’t get to vote.
“You’ll be notified by not receiving an absentee ballot,” said CNEC attorney Lloyd Cole. “That’s how you’ll know.”
Austin, who voted in the June 25 general election, was stripped of his citizenship through an Aug. 22 Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruling, which upholds a constitutional amendment providing that tribal citizens must be able to trace a family member back to the Dawes Rolls, or be “Cherokee by blood.” The ruling affected about 2,800 Freedmen descendants, of which around 1,200 were registered voters.
“I want to be able to get my rights as a U.S. citizen and as a Cherokee,” said Austin. “I voted in the first election, and should be able to vote in the special election. I believe the Supreme Court’s decision is a direct attempt to ensure Chad Smith’s re-election.”
Austin said he was taken aback by the abruptness of Cole’s response to his question, and said the Freedmen intend to take up the matter in federal court.
“From what I understand, our attorney, Jon Velie, is going to file papers in federal court by Friday asking that we be allowed to vote in the election, and if we’re not allowed to vote, they will ask to stay the election,” said Austin. “I am a registered Cherokee citizen. My youngest son is a registered Cherokee citizen. I have been trying for over four years to register my other son and my daughter, who are 26 and 32, and their applications have not been processed.”
According to CN Attorney General Diane Hammons, a hearing in the Freedmen matter is slated for Sept. 20 in federal court.
An audience member asked if a list of affected Freedmen is available, and Cole said CNEC had received notification from the registrar’s office identifying non-citizens, but they had been coded inactive as voters. The list was not made available to the public.
Technically, the CN Supreme Court, in its ruling, remanded the case to the tribe’s district court, and the district court has not yet issued a legal ruling for the election commission or the registrar to remove Freedmen from the roles.
In other business, Todd Hembree, attorney for the Tribal Council, told the election commission a proposed date for a special election to fill the District 2 council seat will be considered by the Rules Committee, and pending approval, by the full council Monday, Sept. 12. Hembree said the tentative date for the election would be Nov. 12, as it complies with the 90-day rule following a council vacancy.
Commissioners also discussed opening voter registration for District 2 citizens for the council election. According to CNEC officials, the commission has received between 500 and 1,000 new voter applications for District 2. After discussion, all commissioners agreed the District 2 election, if held in November, would be part of a completely new election cycle, which would allow for new registration. But the commission did not take any action to approve the measure.
Terms for the current election commissioners – including Patsy Eads Morton, Brenda Walker, Curtist Rohr, Martha Calico and Susan Plumb – expire Sept. 30, but according to CN officials, all will retain their positions until the election season is complete. Two election commissioners are appointed by the chief, two are appointed by the council, and the fifth is appointed by the election commissioners. All must be confirmed by the Tribal Council.