TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation Election Commission voted Wednesday night to allow previously registered freedmen voters to cast challenge ballots in the upcoming principal chief’s election.

“The purpose of the challenge ballot is that it allows us to be prepared for any possible court decision on the issue,” Election Commission chairwoman Susan Plumb said. “If a court decides the freedmen descendants can vote, we will have the ability to certify the election.  If the court decides they cannot vote, we will still be able to preserve the election.”

The election is scheduled for Sept. 24. Plumb and the other commissioners reiterated their desire to not change that date.

“It is this commission's intent to do its best to make sure firstly, that an election is in fact held on Sept. 24 and secondly, that the election commission be prepared to encounter one of several outcomes that could result at the hearing in Washington D.C. on Sept. 20,” Plumb said as the commission returned from a 90-minute executive session.

Tuesday’s hearing is in federal district court concerning an injunction request filed by the freedmen descendants that, if granted would prohibit the tribe from denying the freedmen citizenship or having any elections in which they cannot legally vote.

The five-member commission also voted to authorize Automated Election Services from Rio Rancho, N.M., to send expedited challenge absentee ballots to previously registered freedmen voters who had requested one prior to an Aug. 22 Cherokee Supreme Court order that terminated the citizenship of about 2,800 freedmen descendants. Absentee ballots were mailed out Aug. 29 and 30 and are due to the election commission by Sept. 24.

Freedmen voters who did not request an absentee ballot will be allowed to cast challenge ballots either during early walk-in voting at the election commission or at their registered polling place. Walk-in voting is scheduled to start Saturday.

The commission will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday to discuss the logistics of sending out the expedited absentee ballots.

In light of the Department of the Interior’s announcement that it will not recognize any tribal actions that exclude the freedmen, Plumb said the commission will reach out to assistant Secretary of the Interior Larry Echo Hawk to ensure the approval of the federal government.

More than 30 freedmen attended Wednesday’s meeting and many were not happy with the commission’s decision.

“It’s unfair,” Rodslyn Brown told the commissioners. “We should be able to cast regular ballots. Challenge ballots aren’t necessarily counted.”

The commission’s decision came hours after the tribe filed a response to a request from attorney Ralph Keen for the tribe’s Supreme Court to re-open the freedmen’s class action lawsuit against the Cherokee Nation’s registrar’s office.

In the filing, Cherokee Nation attorney general Diane Hammons agreed with Keen’s request.

“The nation believes that a reopening of the case, reinstituting the stay previously entered by the district court and withdrawal of the order of Aug. 22, 2011, to set the case for briefing on issues raised by the court in that order … is in the best interest of the nation,” Hammons wrote.

The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court has not set a date to hear Keen’s motion. The justices could not be reached for comment.

Melissa Chaplin, one of the members of the class action lawsuit, said Keen was not authorized to speak on the freedmen’s behalf and that his clients did not approve the filing.

“No one authorized that filing,” Chaplin said. “He took that action without our consent.”

Keen, who was appointed by the Cherokee Nation to represent the freedmen in their class action suit in tribal court, denied Chaplin’s comments.

“I am still the appointed counsel,” the Stilwell, Okla., attorney said. “I don’t understand those comments. I’m doing everything I can to get them reinstated.

“I don’t have a problem if some folks decide to get their own attorneys. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but this defies logic.”


According to Cherokee law, a challenge ballot is one given to someone whose name does not show up on voter registration list at a precinct. In order to cast a challenge ballot, the voter has to fill out a voter registration form at the polling place and sign an affidavit confirming his or her address, eligibility to vote in the election and that voter has not already cast a ballot in the election.

Each challenge ballot is placed in an envelope and attached to the voter’s registration form and affidavit. The challenge ballots are segregated from the regular ballots cast and are individually reviewed after the polls close. Ballots from individuals found to be eligible voters are removed from their envelopes and counted. Ballots from ineligible voters remain in their envelopes and segregated.