TULSA, Okla.—A federal judge on Tuesday approved a compromise between the Cherokee Nation and the descendants of slaves once owned by the tribe's members that will allow more than 30,000 registered voters to cast ballots in the tightly-contested special election for tribal chief, if they haven't already.
U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy backed an agreement struck Monday between the tribe and the slaves' descendants, known as freedmen, that will reopen tribal polling stations for five days, starting Sept. 29 and ending Oct. 8, when anyone registered to vote in tribal elections, including freedmen, can cast a ballot.
A large turnout could sway the unusually tight race between Chad Smith, who is seeking a fourth four-year term as principal chief, and Bill John Baker, a longtime tribal councilman. The tribe's Supreme Court ordered the special election after recounts of ballots cast in the initial June election flipped the results several times and each candidate was declared the winner twice.
Both candidates have called for the removal of freedmen from Cherokee voting rolls, but Smith has campaigned for it more vocally and tribal experts believe Baker has the support of many of the 1,233 freedmen who are eligible to vote. It remains to be seen how many of thousands of voters who already passed on the chance to vote will take advantage of their new opportunity to do so. Many live out of state, far from the polling stations in the Tahlequah-based tribe's 14-county jurisdiction.
Rodlen Brown-King, who is one of the freedmen, said she's already begun organizing a trip to the polls for her and about 200 friends who want to vote.
"It's very exciting that we're taking part in this. It's a healing process, bringing us all together," Brown-King said.
Sharlin Gray, a Cherokee citizen who lives in Catoosa, says she's excited that her people can have the power to affect change through the ballot box.
"My vote is important and it's going to count, and we need all the votes to count," she said. "Anybody that's Cherokee should be able to vote."
Smith and Baker, who have squabbled over almost every issue facing the Tahlequah-based tribe, used Tuesday's ruling to bash one another.
"I am pleased that the court agreed not to give special rights to anyone and allowed Cherokees by blood the same opportunities to vote as everyone else," Baker said Tuesday. "My opponent has been shamefully silent on this topic, refusing to forcefully call for equal rights for Cherokees by blood."
Smith accused Baker and his supporters of extending "the game into the fifth quarter" because he feared he was behind in the vote.
"The order doesn't go far enough to protect the rights of Cherokee voters: it only benefits voters who live in Baker's hometown of Tahlequah who can easily get to the polls," Smith said. "And it completely disenfranchises voters who live out of state."
Last week, Kennedy approved an agreement between the tribe, the federal government and the freedmen that guaranteed the freedmen full citizenship in the tribe, which with nearly 300,000 members is Oklahoma's largest American Indian tribe and one of the nation's biggest. The agreement also required the tribe to inform roughly 1,200 freedmen that they could vote in Saturday's tribal chief election and to get absentee ballots to roughly 350 freedmen who had requested them by last Thursday.
Susan Plumb, the chairwoman of the election commission, said Tuesday that about 1,230 citizenship letters were mailed out Monday night, along with about 140 absentee ballots to freedmen who had previously requested them, even though the judge's order was a day old. The mailing cost the commission around $24,000, she said.
Monday, a mechanical problem with a printer prevented the tribe from mailing the notifications and ballots on time, but that they all went out by last Thursday.
Jon Velie, an attorney for the freedmen who helped broker Monday's deal, said it would allow all Cherokees, including freedmen, to vote together and promote tribal unity.
"We ... are grateful that the court saw the wisdom of the freedmen's request to permit all Cherokees the right to vote together," Velie said. "The Cherokee Nation's agreement that the freedmen were citizens and had the same rights as other Cherokees last week was a big step in bringing this tribe back together."