The initial count had declared incumbent Albert Rose the winner of the second Birdtown seat, edging challenger Ashley Sessions by 12 votes. But in the course of the recount, 41 more votes were discovered for the two candidates, an increase of 4.8 percent over the previous total — and Sessions emerged as the winner by a margin of five votes.
Now, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Board of Elections will likely conduct a recount of results for each of the six townships.
“We feel like it’s imperative that we recount all the votes, just to maintain the integrity of the election,” said Denise Ballard, chair of the elections board.
It’s typical for vote counts to shift slightly following a recount, but Ballard can’t recall any instance in which a recount changed the results of an election, or caused such a drastic shift in the vote count as occurred in Birdtown.
“At the polls you expect to pick up one or two because somebody might have used an ink pen instead of the markers that are provided,” Ballard said. “When you hand count you expect a small margin to get picked up, but nothing like this.”
The difference this year seems to be connected to early voting. This is the first year that early voting has been available for Tribal Council elections, and the majority of new votes found came from a log on one of the early voting machines that failed to record the vote contained in ballots cast there, Ballard said. The log showed zero votes, but the hand count showed that the corresponding ballots had been clearly marked. While some of those votes went to Rose, more went to Sessions — enough to flip the outcome.
The company that the tribe contracts with to provide the election machines also provides markers that voters are supposed to use when casting their ballots. However, some people mark their ballots with other writing instruments such as ballpoint pens, and the machine fails to read these. The zero count from the log in question could be due to people voting at that time not using the markers.
Rose’s defeat would make him the fifth of seven Tribal Council incumbents who ran for re-election and supported the impeachment of former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert to lose re-election. The two anti-impeachment incumbents who ran for re-election were far-and-away the top vote-getters in their communities.
Sessions’ victory would make her the first woman in more than 50 years to represent Birdtown on Tribal Council.
However, in Tribal Council Sept. 14 Rose said that he wasn’t conceding the election yet, indicating skepticism over the legitimacy of the 29 votes for Sessions that were “mysteriously found.”
“I’ve been in a lot of elections on the state and county levels and never ever seen anything like this,” Rose said. “It’s unheard of. I just want people to know it will be protested for runoff.”
Tribal law allows any candidate who lost an election by a margin of 2 percent or less to ask for a recount, but there is no provision for protesting the results of a recount — though Rose could decide to file suit in Tribal Court.
Rose was absent from Tribal Council during much of Sept. 14 and 15, with Chairman Bill Taylor indicating Sept. 14 that Rose had left to meet with his attorney regarding the recount results.
A runoff election would be possible if the Board of Elections were to determine that a recount of the ballots would not yield an accurate vote count. Sec. 161-7 of tribal law allows the Board of Elections to issue a runoff between “all candidates that the Board deems as necessary to resolve any issues concerning the accuracy of the vote count.”
For her part, Sessions believes that if the shoe were on the other foot — if Rose had won after the votes were found — “that no one would be protesting anything.”
Sessions was present for the entire three-hour recount Sept. 13, during which the votes were counted twice. Rose opted to send a representative rather than attending himself.
“The election board confirmed it was accurate and they gave the tally to The (Cherokee) One Feather,” Sessions said. “In my opinion it should be official.”
The Birdtown recount was one of two recounts conducted last week. Incumbent Tommye Saunooke took the first-place spot in the Painttown race with a decisive 30.4 percent of the vote, but unofficial results had showed the second- through fourth-place candidates separated by only three votes. However, the recount confirmed unofficial results, putting political newcomer Lisa Taylor as the second representative. Lisa Taylor picked up seven votes in the recount for a total of 167 with opponents Terri Henry and Yona Wade tied at 160.
“Congratulations to all the candidates who ran and to the newly elected Tribal Council,” Lisa Taylor wrote in a statement. “Our tribe has made it clear that they are willing to go in a new and different direction where we focus on improving the lives of our people. I am ready to go to work for you and would ask for your continued prayers.”
Though Ballard said a recount of all votes is likely, as of press time she was uncertain when the recounts would take place. The law requires recounts to be televised, meaning that they must take place in the Tribal Council chambers during a time when Council is not in session. Budget hearings are currently underway, meaning that the chamber is frequently in use.
However, the clock is ticking — new representatives will be sworn in Oct. 2.
Ballard said she hopes this incident will spur tribal government to allot the election board additional space, something it’s been requesting for years. The board needs more space to work out of, she said, and having a better facility would improve public perception of the vote’s integrity.
“Everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, nothing’s secure,’ which I disagree with. However, that’s what the public is saying,” Ballard said. “They (the ballots) were secure. They were locked up. Only one person had a key, so there weren’t a bunch of keys out floating around or anything.”
More space could also give the election board more flexibility with the machines it uses. It currently leases the machines from an election company.
“We don’t own machines. We don’t have a space to even store something like that, so that’s not an option for us unless Council does something and changes that,” Ballard said.
In the General Election Sept. 7, tribal members cast their votes to select the 12 people who will represent them on Tribal Council 2017-2019. The top two vote-getters in each community win a seat. During a recount, only the votes for candidates named in the recount request — those who are within 2 percent of each other’s vote total — are counted.
Birdtown Tribal Council
• Boyd Owle N/A 506
• Ashley Sessions 448 419
• Albert Rose 443 431
• Travis Smith N/A 323
Painttown Tribal Council
• Tommye Saunooke N/A 208
• Lisa Taylor 167 160
• Terri Henry 160 159
• Yona Wade 160 157