By JOSEPH MARTIN
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Election law changes are not supposed to occur during an election year. In the Sept. 6 session, Tribal Council passed an ordinance to redefine the time for which changes to the election law can be made, giving the Tribe two additional months. At the work session Nov. 13, council members and community members gave input, and it times it was contentious. Some questioned the need to update the law so hurriedly.
Tribal Council has until Dec. 31 to pass any changes to the law. The proposed changes address ineligibility for office, particularly for those who’ve been impeached and removed from office. It also addresses the certification process, conducting recounts and runoffs, handling the filling of vacancies of offices, petitioning for referendums, early voting procedures, protests and irregularities, unlawful campaign activities and securing ballots and the Board of Elections’ offices.
Acting Attorney General Michael McConnell said, “The request for changes grew out of questions and concerns raised in the last election cycle. Tribal Council has put a lot of time into the matter this year. It held multiple work sessions over several months.”
The recent changes to the law are occurring after a contentious Tribal Council election in 2017 in Birdtown. That election saw early voting with an insufficient number of ballots purchased in that community. It also saw initial results that put Birdtown’s top two vote getters as Boyd Owle and Albert Rose. Ashley Sessions, however, was 12 votes behind Rose in third place. Sessions asked for and received a recount, which got her 29 more votes. Rose received 12 more votes in the recount, but Sessions’ gains put her in second place.
Rose protested claiming that the irregularities unfairly and illegally impacted the outcome. After the board, made up of Chairperson Denise Ballard, Roger Smoker, Annie Owens, Shirley Reagan, Pam Straughan and Margaret French (who signed “disagree” on the decision), reviewed the issue and set a runoff election between Sessions and Rose. Rose prevailed in the runoff.
It was also an election where an investigation determined that voter fraud had occurred, as early and undervote ballots were tampered with between the general election and the runoff. The tribe is offering a $25,000 reward for information. The status of the investigation remains unknown. When Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke asked, McConnell answered that he didn’t know any more than they did.
The proposed law charges fees for filing protests. McConnell said the $100-fee is a nominal one to show protests are taken seriously. “That won’t cover the costs of a court reporter.”
With the election issues that occurred last year, issues about the best appointees for the board were raised. Lori Taylor, a candidate for council in Big Cove and nominee for the Election Board, who Council didn’t approve, said they need to search for the best candidates. “Even when you have an election board, the flaw is in the vetting system. There is no vetting system. You get recycled people.”
McConnell said his focus has been the conduct of the board, the issues such as dual appointments haven’t been raised to him. Taylor replied that language for across-the-board ethics is necessary. “It needs to be there,” she said.
Suggestions were made for the board hiring its own attorney as opposed to the use of the attorney general’s office. Missy Crowe, who announced her principal chief candidacy, has suggested that McConnell has been biased in his past representation. Teresa McCoy, who also announced candidacy for principal chief, said that the tribe needs a check on it attorney.
Saunooke also suggested the board have its own legal counsel, pointing to other tribal entities using their own attorneys. “Get your own attorney to advise you along the way. You need your own attorney, not the (attorney general’s) office.”
Referendums were also addressed, and some expressed a desire to make the outcomes of ballot initiatives irreversible without a referendum. “Council cannot change a referendum vote of the people,” McCoy said. McConnell responded, “That’s not true. Council can change it, but it may be unwise.” McCoy said there needs to be a law to protect a referendum result.
McCoy, called on the board to address much of the issues in policy and to create and release a policy. McCoy said this should’ve happened a long time ago. “They’ve had 10 years,” she said. “The board has no policy. It just behooves me.”
Some expressed irritation at the rush to get a new law passed and wanted to give more time for public review, while others felt the issues in it needed to be addressed. Big Cove Rep. Richard French called for the issue to be worked on more and put to the next council. “Let’s put a stop to it and stop rushing around,” he said. “We’re pushing. When you start pushing too quick, you’re going to make some mistakes. I’m not going to support it.”
Rose said, “We have been working on this, and we have been taking our time. We’ve been here since April working on it. We’re not rushing it. No, I’m not going to support killing this. We’ve put too work into it already.”
Tribal Council has scheduled an additional work session for Nov. 29 at 9 a.m. and will vote on the proposed law in its December session.