COMMENTARY: It’s time; the Principal People’s right to choose

by Aug 14, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


During the controversy over the constitution, the forces opposing the people’s right to choose kept using the term “unintended consequences” to describe the alleged damage the proposed constitution as written would do to the workings of the government. We will never know if those claims were founded because the intended consequence of removing the unanimously approved referendum question was realized in the eleventh hour by a hastily-organized campaign.

After years of ignorance, apathy, or possibly lack of interest, a special interest group that included members of the legal department of the government, convinced the government that allowing the people to decide this issue was too risky of a proposition. In the process, the government was also convinced to remove two additional referendum questions that could have resulted in extending the terms of Tribal Council members to four years, staggering their terms, and establishing two consecutive term limitations. These questions had been approved for the voters to consider since 2021, with two unanimous votes from the Tribal Council and two ratifications from the Principal Chief. The removal of the questions was lumped into a proposal by the Attorney General’s office to kill the constitution referendum question.

For years, the One Feather has documented, as part of its coverage of the election process, the candidates’ comments. Sometimes that is through the review of their statements from other publications or media, sometimes from their appearances at events, “meet the candidates” sessions, and debates. Most candidates express that they favor a constitution for the tribe. And most of them said it was time to let the people decide about changes to the terms of the Tribal Council seats. And most of them also say that they favor letting the people decide through referendums how the government should operate. After all, the government was created to serve the community.

My guess is that the Charter is firmly in place for at least the next four years. With the disruption of the Constitution Committee and new law that will send the proposed constitution back to the drawing board, the legal department’s opinion that the majority of the document would have to be gutted in order to avert all those consequences that they foresaw, and the mandate under law that a referendum needs 51 percent of the registered voters to participate and 30 percent required to approve a referendum item in order for a referendum to have legitimacy, it is highly unlikely that a constitution of any sort will appear on a ballot again until 2027. It is simply unrealistic to think that after decades of low voter turnout history in the off year (years when a Chief race is not occurring), voter habits will change that dramatically.

As I said in a previous commentary, I have no doubt that the actions that reversed a 6-year-plus course toward a governing document that included civil rights for the Cherokee people were legal. And in the case of the Tribal Council, they did the business that we expect them to do. The Attorney General did the job that he was tasked to do as related to the executive and legislative branches. That is the confounding thing, that while everyone doing their respective jobs, we somehow managed to deny the people the right to choose on these issues. We even had one attorney state that they were opposed to allowing the people to vote on the issue of the proposed constitution. You see, had those questions gone to the referendum, there was as good a chance that those compelling arguments would have caused the constituency to vote no as there were those arguments would have caused a “yes” vote. But instead of putting it in the hands of the people, it was decided that wouldn’t happen. And even though most of the people involved have stated publicly that they either support legislative branch terms or support putting the question to the people through a referendum, it was decided that we will not decide that as well.

All that being said, the people will choose their representatives for the legislative branch, and executive branch, and some communities will select their school board representatives in this election. Those are incredibly important decisions. The financial and social health of our tribe is put in the hands of the people at election time. We decide who sits in the seats for two and four years. Those who we choose to represent us will determine our future, good or bad. It is a time when we decide if we need to change or stay the course. Each candidate has made their case to us, and now we are in the process of selection. It is no small decision and I hope that each one of us is weighing up the choice based on who they think has the best credentials, and heart, to lead us into the future.

And two referendum questions were left for us to decide.

One asks us if we want to permit the regulatory body for alcohol to expand the ability of businesses to serve mixed drinks on the Boundary. The exact question that we see on the ballot is as follows: “Do you support allowing the Tribal ABC Commission to issue mixed beverage permits for the sale of mixed beverages on tribal lands to qualified establishments including but not limited to restaurants, hotels, convention centers, and nonprofit organizations?”

Our “yes” or “no” on this question will have consequences, both intentional and unintentional, both positive and negative. We must decide if the positives outweigh the negatives enough to bring value to our community.

The other asks us if want to legalize the use, including recreational use, of cannabis on the Qualla Boundary. The exact question is as follows: ?Do you support legalizing the possession and use of cannabis for persons who are at least twenty-one (21) years old, and require the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market?”

Again, this is an incredibly important question that requires us to carefully study and consider the ramifications of either our “yes” or “no” vote.

Both questions involve the financial and social future of our tribe. They require careful consideration and reasoning. Based on the rationale used to remove the three referendum questions from the ballot over the past two months, one would think that the questions that remain would also be too “over our heads” to decide. Let’s show those who think that of us that we are capable of controlling our own destiny. Let’s make this the largest voter turnout in the history of our tribe. If you live on Boundary, early voting is now in progress. Drop by the Election Board office and cast your votes. If you live or will be away from the Boundary during the election and you qualify for an absentee ballot, you have hopefully applied for and received what you need to cast your votes. Note that I am not telling you how you should vote. I am just asking you to make this election for the people and for the people.

And if you are on the fence about voting, keep in mind that there are those who are counting on the status quo. Low voter turnout creates advantages for some candidates. Our elections sometimes turn on a few votes, particularly in the legislative branch and school board elections. When you consider marking your marks on the ballot, remember the comments of those who inferred that you were too simple-minded to make choices about your destiny. And prove them wrong.