absentee ballots, Muscogee Nation
Four-term McIntosh District incumbent Rep. Adam Jones III, left, and Okmulgee District candidate Lanissa Jack-Melton filed a joint notice of appeal on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, following a Muscogee Nation District Court decision to deny their petitions. (NonDoc)

An attorney for two candidates challenging the Muscogee Nation’s Sept. 18 election results says 57 percent of tribal citizens who submitted absentee ballots did not have their ballots counted because they did not reach the Okmulgee office of the U.S. Postal Service by an 11 a.m. deadline. In an appeal to the Muscogee Nation Supreme Court, the candidates are alleging that slow mail delivery and other issues caused about one-third of all Muscogee citizens who attempted to vote to be disenfranchised.

On Oct. 11, McIntosh District four-term incumbent Rep. Adam Jones III and Okmulgee District candidate Lanissa Jack-Melton filed a joint notice to appeal a Muscogee Nation District Court decision that had denied their petitions of alleged fraud and irregularities in the Sept. 18 primary election. Both candidates lost their respective elections.

As first reported by Jerrad Moore of Mvskoke Media, the candidates’ petitions will now be heard by the Muscogee Nation Supreme Court. The independent tribal news outlet requested a copy of the candidates’ appeal from the court, but Muscogee Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Lerblance said the pending nature of the appeal means the request document is not open to the public “at this time.”

According to MCN Code, “a hearing on the appeal shall be set by the Supreme Court no less than three nor more than 10 calendar days from the date of the filing of the appeal in the Supreme Court,” meaning the MCN Supreme Court has from Oct. 14 to Oct. 21 to set a hearing date for the appeal.

“Adam Jones, III and Lanissa Jack-Melton’s appeal to the Supreme Court of the Muscogee Creek Nation is intended to protect citizens’ right to vote and ensure fairness in this and future elections,” Carly Griffith Hotvedt, the attorney for Jones and Melton, said in a statement to NonDoc. “With only about 20 percent voter registration of the total citizen enrollment of Muscogee Creek Nation and less than a 14 percent turnout of those registered (according to votes counted), there are significant deficiencies in voter encouragement and voter participation.”

Hotvedt said issues with slow mail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service magnified issues of low voter turnout in the Muscogee Nation.

“Those deficiencies have been compounded by a disruption in election procedure resulting in over 57 percent of voters who cast absentee ballots being disenfranchised by not having their votes counted,” Hotvedt said, adding that “905 absentee ballots were counted, but uncounted absentee ballots total at least 1,248, representing one-third of all voters who tried to cast a ballot in the 2021 primary election. Those votes were not counted not because of any fault of the voters, but due to significant delays by the U.S. Postal Service.”

Hotvedt said the number of ballots that came in after the 11 a.m. Sept. 18 deadline was provided to her by Nelson Harjo — manager of the Muscogee Nation Election Board — during the district court hearing. During a Sept. 25 National Council pre-agenda hearing, one election board employee said “over 1,000 ballots came in late” with postmark dates as far back as Sept. 3. (Harjo told NonDoc on Sept. 29 that he could not immediately provide the exact number of absentee ballots received after the Election Day deadline and has not responded to subsequent calls and texts seeking information.)

“Low voter participation and turnout can be reflective of distrust and low information surrounding electoral systems and processes,” Hotvedt said. “Rep. Jones and Ms. Jack-Melton look forward to presenting their arguments to the Supreme Court in hopes of improving ballot access and preservation of citizens’ fundamental right to vote so enshrined in the Muscogee Creek Nation and Constitution.”

Additional irregularity being alleged

Muscogee Nation primary election
The 2021 Muscogee Nation primary election was held Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. The Muscogee National Council office is located at Highway 75 and Loop 56 in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. (Joe Tomlinson)

Hotvedt said that Jones will allege at least one additional irregularity before the Supreme Court, beyond what was recorded in his original petition to the district court.

The allegation Hotvedt mentioned is that the Muscogee Nation Election Board changed the location of the Okmulgee precinct but made “very minimal effort” to communicate that change to the voting public. There is one Sept. 7 Facebook post from the election board which noted the change of precinct 11 days prior to the election.

In Jones’ original petition, he alleged that appointed members of the Muscogee Nation Election Board cast in-person ballots after realizing their absentee ballots were not received at the post office in time to be counted.

NonDoc sought a statement from Galen Cloud — who placed first ahead of Jones in the McIntosh District race — but he did not respond prior to the publication of this story. Cloud received 1,377 votes to Jones’ 1,089 votes.

Melton received 320 votes in the Okmulgee District race, the least among the four-candidate field. The top two vote-earners — Nelson Harjo (the election board manager’s father) with 822 votes and incumbent James Jennings with 815 votes — will head to a Nov. 6 runoff election.