During an emergency meeting Thursday morning, the Cherokee Nation Election Commission voted to expedite mailing absentee ballots to about 300 Freedmen descendants for the Sept. 24 principal chief special election.
Recipients are Freedmen who voted in the tribe’s general election June 25 and the runoff election for deputy chief July 23. Freedmen who requested absentee ballots but did not vote in the earlier elections will be allowed to cast ballots at either their precinct polling places or in-person at the Cherokee Nation Election Commission.
According to CNEC Chairwoman Susan Plumb, all Freedmen votes will be treated as challenge ballots, as the group members currently do have citizenship in the tribe.
“We do not have the ability to determine citizenship, only the ability to determine eligibility to vote,” said Plumb. “There are two pending motions, one in federal court and one in tribal court, that could change [citizenship status for the Freedmen]. We’re trying to plan for both eventualities.”
Citizenship for approximately 2,800 Freedmen descendants was stripped following a CN Supreme Court ruling on Aug. 22. Since the ruling, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has denied the tribe $33 million in housing funding, and the Interior Department notified Acting Principal Chief Joe Crittenden the agency would not recognize any action taken by the tribe. Both cite the Freedmen ruling as the reason for action. Freedmen have filed suit in federal court, asking that citizenship be restored. That hearing is set for Sept. 20.
Ralph Keen, a tribal attorney appointed to represent the Freedmen, filed a motion with the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, asking that a stay be re-instituted to allow Freedmen citizenship until a proper hearing can be conducted. CN Attorney General Diane Hammons filed a response to Keen’s motion, supporting the Freedmen request.
Allowing Freedmen to vote challenge ballots in the election would prevent a potential third election scenario, should either court rule after Sept. 24.
Freedmen member Melissa Chaplin asked commissioners why they were holding the election if litigation is pending.
Clifford Wright, associate counsel to CNEC, said while the election commission is an autonomous body, it must follow certain directives.
“The Election Commission is carrying out the election ordered by the chief, and will do so on Sept. 24, even if the Freedmen issue is unresolved,” said Wright. “That’s why the CNEC is allowing Freedmen provisional ballots. We’ve been ordered to have an election, and we’re doing the best we can to carry out that order.”
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