EDITORIAL: Representing all the people

by Apr 2, 2018OPINIONS





I have heard Tribal Council and community members discuss the possibility of one person, one vote in tribal government for many years. It is a topic of discussion because current law requires a census of the people to determine populations of each township or community on the Boundary to determine the weight or percentage of power each Tribal Council member has in voting decisions.

The current law puts it this way, “A tribal census, for the purposes of determining the weight of the votes to be cast by each Tribal Council member, shall be conducted prior to the 1981 tribal election and prior to the election each ten years thereafter to determine the number of enrolled tribal members residing in each township” (Section 19, Charter and Governing Document of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians).

Currently, the weights each Council representative has is as follows: Wolftown, 12 percent for each rep.; Birdtown, 12 percent for each rep.; Yellowhill, 7 percent for each rep.; Big Cove, 7 percent for each rep.; Painttown, 6 percent for each rep.; and Snowbird/Cherokee County, 6 percent each rep. This percentage split is supposed to accurately represent the population based on the people living in or claiming genealogical connection to a specific community. One of the outstanding issues the Tribe is currently facing is that we have not had a census to determine community populations within communities for many years.

Some say that we haven’t had a true census since the law was created. But, we have assuredly had elections long since the last valid (or recognized) census took place. The Tribe will ultimately have to decide on a solution for the current lack of compliance with the Charter regarding holding elections without a valid census.

One thought came to mind about the weighed vote and its necessity, or lack thereof. What if we made all Council seats accountable to the entire Tribe? While we would certainly want equal representation of communities on Tribal Council, wouldn’t it make sense to tie a Tribe-wide vote to those seeking seats?

One possible way to engage all the Tribe in selection of Tribal Council members could look like this: a primary would be held (just as we have always done) in which the communities would vote only for their top four candidates to run in the general election; once the communities selected their top four, there would be a general election in which all tribal members voted for two candidates from each community. So, regardless of which community you live in, you would get to vote for candidates in each community during the election. At the end of the election, you would still have two members of each community serving, but they will have been chosen from the entire Tribe, not just a single community. This would reduce the importance of a census. I would think you could work with the Enrollment Office, who must know where we all are anyway (check mailing addresses, etc.).

Currently, Tribal Council members are elected by individual communities, but the Council representatives are charged will the care of all tribal members. That must be challenging for a candidate or Council representative, because what is good for the Tribe isn’t always popular with an individual community.

If all tribal members were involved in the selection process, I believe that we could finally get to that “one person, one vote” concept. Since all Tribal Council representatives would ultimately be chosen by most of the Tribe, the weighted vote wouldn’t carry as much weight.

It has been suggested in the past that it would be beneficial to have “at-large” Tribal Council representatives to address the rights of tribal members who do not live on the Qualla Boundary. One of the concerns with at-large representation has been the weighted vote. With a high percentage of tribal members living off-Boundary, two at-large representatives could potentially have substantial influence on tribal law. A “one person, one vote” scenario would make having at-large representatives more reasonable.

There is much work to be done regarding our law. Tribal Code is still being looked at for consistency and conflicting language. A draft constitution is making its way in front of us to be considered for replacing existing governing documents. The ideas I have suggested are just a few of many that we should seriously consider as we move forward with creating solid law to guide this generation and the next. It is important that you participate in the discussion and the process. Government should be representative of all the people. It is up to us to create the structure we want to live under. The unity we seek is dependent on the actions we take.