After “extremely slow mail delivery” caused an “abundance” of absentee ballots in the recent Muscogee Nation primary election to arrive after the Sept. 18 deadline, the tribe’s election board is considering what actions, if any, can be taken to remedy the situation, according to a statement posted to Facebook on Monday.
According to Title 19 § 10–105 of the Muscogee Nation election code, absentee ballots must be returned “by United States mail to the Okmulgee Post Office by 11:00 a.m. on election day.”
“Our election laws are pretty clear cut that the absentee ballots have to be at the Okmulgee Post Office by 11 a.m. on the day of election in order to retrieve those ballots and count those for the election,” said Nelson Harjo Jr., manager of the Muscogee Nation Election Board. “It has to be physically there by that time and date in order for the board to count those.”
Harjo Jr. did not specify how many late absentee ballots qualified as “an abundance.” He said the election board is “not sure” if any legislative action can or will be taken to address the issue, but he said the board is hoping to hold discussions with Chief David Hill and the Muscogee National Council regarding possible changes.
In the Sept. 18 primary election, 2,510 Muscogee voters cast ballots for a nationwide question of whether to enshrine press protections into the tribe’s constitution. With 17,965 citizens registered to vote as of Sept. 1, turnout for the historic ballot question was about 14 percent.
Recount Thursday, petition hearing Friday
Harjo Jr. said the election board will not have further information on those discussions until two challenges to the primary election results have been addressed.
Filed by Okmulgee District candidate Lanissa Jack-Melton, the first challenge is a requested recount, which will be conducted 10 a.m. Thursday before the Muscogee Nation Supreme Court. The court will determine whether election ballots have been successfully preserved before conducting the recount.
Jack-Melton received 320 votes in the Okmulgee District, the fewest of any candidate in that race. The top finishers were Nelson Harjo (the election board manager’s father) and the incumbent Rep. James Jennings. Unless the recount changes the vote totals or results in the primary election being invalidated, Jennings and Harjo are scheduled to head to a runoff Nov. 6.
Late absentee ballots received after the Sept. 18 election deadline will not be included in the recount, Harjo Jr. said.
The other challenge is a petition alleging election irregularities filed by McIntosh District four-term incumbent Rep. Adam Jones III, who was defeated by challenger Galen Cloud. Cloud received 1,377 votes to Jones’ 1,089.
According to a story from Mvskoke Media, Jones’ petition alleges irregularities among ballots cast at the Okmulgee Precinct Office on Election Day, including appointed members of the Muscogee Nation Election Board casting in-person ballots after realizing their absentee ballots were not received at the post office in time to be counted.
The Muscogee Nation District Court is set to hear Jones’ case 9 a.m. Friday by video.
NonDoc attempted to contact both Jones and Cloud for comment, but neither candidate responded prior to the publication of this story.
Past irregularities led to election re-do
In 2019, the results of the Muscogee Nation’s primary election were nullified after the tribe’s Supreme Court said ballots were improperly preserved, Harjo Jr. said. A new primary election was held subsequently.
“On our end, we have taken what I believe to be all the measures to ensure that doesn’t happen again,” Harjo Jr. said.
Harjo Jr. said the 2019 mishap stemmed from a law “that painted the Supreme Court into a corner.”
“(The Supreme Court) said, ‘We don’t think there has been any fraud (…) but at the same time, if we can’t safely say that these ballots have been preserved in the proper manner, as according to what the law states, then we have no choice,'” Harjo Jr. said.
Harjo Jr. also said the ballot preservation law has been amended since the 2019 election to clarify that only the race affected by a recount — instead of an entire election — would have to be redone if the Supreme Court ruled the ballots to be unsuccessfully preserved.
The Muscogee Nation general election is set to be held Nov. 6 and will feature runoffs in the Okfuskee, Okmulgee and Tulsa Districts. The Muscogee Nation has 86,100 enrolled citizens, according to its website.