Challenger in Cherokee tribal chief race wins in recount

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — A recount in the contentious Cherokee Nation principal chief election showed challenger Bill John Baker beat incumbent Chad Smith by 266 votes, both camps said late Thursday.

The Cherokee Nation Election Commission didn’t immediately return telephone calls and emails seeking confirmation of the numbers, but spokespersons for Baker and Smith said results they had received gave Baker 7,613 votes to 7,347 for Smith.

It would be the second time in less than a week that results of the race changed. Unofficial results released Sunday showed Baker leading Smith by 11 votes, but when the election commission certified the vote on Monday, Smith led by seven votes.

The commission offered no explanation as to why the vote totals changed. More than 15,000 votes were cast.

Baker, a longtime tribal councilman, called for the recount on Wednesday, and the tribe’s Supreme Court ruled that the recount would start Thursday.

“Tonight is a great night for the Cherokee Nation,” Baker said in a statement. “Honesty and transparency has prevailed, and the voice of the Cherokee people has finally been heard.”

Smith also issued a statement, saying he was “perplexed” by the results, and wondered how he lost 262 votes while Baker gained 11. He also said the vote count fell by more than 250.

“We have not gotten an explanation from the election commission about the 250 vanishing votes, but we will insist upon answers within the appeals process,” Smith said.

Whoever wins will lead Oklahoma’s largest American Indian tribe and one of the biggest in the nation, with nearly 300,000 members. Among other duties, the chief implements a $600 million budget, said Mike Miller, spokesman for the nation.

The election and its aftermath have drawn comparisons to the recount in the 2000 presidential election in Florida involving Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

“It’s one of the biggest political events in Cherokee history,” tribal councilman Chuck Hoskin Jr., of Vinita, said earlier this week. “… When I talk to people, I tell them, I know you’re upset, but let’s be calm. Let’s work the system, work the problem.”

Dozens of Baker supporters gathered in a peaceful protest outside the commission’s office in Tahlequah on Thursday, carrying signs with slogans such as “Jail to the Chief,” ”Every Vote Counts, Unless You’re Cherokee,” and “No Thief For Chief.”

“I know Bill John Baker would be the best chief we could possibly get,” said Geraldine Martin, 60, of Locust Grove. “I think there was foul play in it and they took it away from him.”

For Nick Sunday, 52, of Chouteau, it was the first time he had voted in a tribal election, and the results left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“I voted for Baker, and I feel I got robbed,” Sunday said.

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