OKMULGEE, OKLAHOMA —Following letters of invitation from the election board and principal chief, The Carter Center deployed a small team of observers to the Nov. 2 primary election in Muscogee (Creek) Nation for the tribe’s principal chief, second chief, and members of the National Council. A general election is anticipated on December 14, 2019.
The Carter Center deployed a team of three international electoral experts to Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN), which retains jurisdiction over tribal citizens in eight counties in east-central Oklahoma. The team observed early in-person voting at all four early voting precincts in advance of election day as well as the training of poll workers. On election day, the team observed the polling process at 16 of the nation’s 18 in-person voting precincts. In addition, The Carter Center accompanied members of the election board and Lighthorse police to collect absentee ballots from the United States Post Office in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and transport them to the MCN government building where the processing of ballots took place. The Carter Center observed the verification and counting of the absentee ballots, the receipt of election materials from precincts after the polls had closed, and the tabulation of electoral results.
The Carter Center conducts its election observation work in accordance with the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Observers, which provide guidelines for professional and impartial methods of international election observation. As an international nongovernmental organization, The Carter Center assesses electoral processes against the host nation’s constitution, election laws, and other pertinent legislation.
The electoral process is ongoing, as an electoral dispute resolution process allows for the filing of appeals November 4-8. Following questions raised about the mailing of absentee ballots, a court hearing is scheduled for Thursday, November 7, to determine whether any action should be taken on absentee ballots that arrived at the post office after the legal deadline. As the process is ongoing, the following are only preliminary observations. The Carter Center will release a final report and recommendations after the conclusion of the electoral process following the general election in December.
A primary election was held in Muscogee (Creek) Nation on September 21, 2019. An electoral dispute resulted in a court order on October 2, 2019, to annul all results from the September 21 election and hold a second primary election. Several candidates withdrew from the process between the September 21 election and the vote on November 2. Under the MCN Electoral Code, if no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two vote getters advance to the general election. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s electoral system allows voters to vote for one candidate in each legislative district race.
Summary of Observations
The Carter Center commends the people of Muscogee (Creek) Nation on a smooth electoral process. Polling precinct staff conducted their responsibilities with professionalism in precincts where The Carter Center observed during early voting and on election day. The Center’s team found that election board commissioners and staff performed their responsibilities with integrity.
The Electoral Process.The November 2 primary election featured two days of early in-person voting at four precincts across the territory on October 30 and 31. Early voting, intended to afford voters greater opportunity to exercise their franchise, was introduced for the 2019 elections and was received positively by those interviewed by Carter Center observers.
In addition to the early voting days, the election board introduced a number of other procedures to the process in response to complaints that arose during the September primary election and the court’s orders. These measures, which included bolstering the documentation of the chain of custody of sensitive electoral materials, were positive additions that strengthened the electoral process. Other measures included strengtheningprocedures for verifying, sorting, and counting of absentee ballots, as well as formalizing security processes for ballots and ballot boxes. Additionally, as in recent elections, registered voters who had requested an absentee ballot but decided instead to vote in person on election day were treated in the same way as voters who were allowed to cast “challenged votes.” “Challenged votes” cast on election day are counted only after inspection by the election board and confirmation that they were cast by a registered voter and that that person did not also cast an absentee ballot.
For these elections the election board also strengthened its recruitment process for precinct workers, including the implementation of an application process. The training of poll workers focused on the technical aspects of the electoral process and was a useful refresher for the many experienced precinct workers.
Election Day.The polling process proceeded smoothly on election day. Some polling precincts experienced minor challenges with a curling of ballot papers that caused some voters to have difficulty inserting their ballots into the counting machines. Polling staff were able to assist voters in these instances.
Voter turnout has historically been low in Muscogee (Creek) Nation elections, and the November 2 polls were no exception. Although results have not yet been certified, voter turnout appears to be similar to or slightly higher than turnout in the September 21 election, with only about 28 percent of registered voters participating. Voter registration numbers are low in the nation, as only about 18,000 of 89,000 citizens are registered voters. The Carter Center hopes participation will increase in future elections so that the will of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation people is more fully represented.
Counting and Tabulation. The election board conducted the counting of absentee ballots and tabulation of election results with assistance from Automated Election Services (AES), the private vendor that provides the voting and counting machines, and in the presence of Carter Center observers and watchers representing candidates. The tabulation process was also live-streamed by the national media outlet Mvskoke Media. These efforts toward transparency in the counting and tabulation process are commendable.
Overall, the counting and tabulation process was conducted smoothly. The Carter Center observed that additional steps were put in place since the September 21 election to improve the efficiency of the process, including the addition of a second workstation to verify the signatures on absentee ballots. Members of the Citizenship Office were present throughout the process to provide additional verification as needed if questions arose regarding the eligibility of any voter to cast a ballot, including absentee ballots, challenged ballots, or any questions from polling precincts.
The Carter Center respectfully offers the following recommendations for additional improvements in advance of the December 14 general elections:
Increase public information, including voter awareness efforts. The Carter Center recommends that public information campaigns regarding the elections be increased, including additional information about the election date, the ballot, the voting process, how to request an absentee ballot, and deadlines for the receipt of returned absentee ballots.
Enhance training of precinct workers. Future electoral processes would be improved by ensuring a more proactive participation of the board and election manager in the development and implementation of substantive parts of the training sessions and ensuring that training goes beyond the technical aspects of the operation to include practical exercises, especially for those who are new to the process.
Provide onsite training for watchers and observers during tabulation.Watchers and observers provide an important layer of transparency to the process. The Carter Center recommends that the election board provide brief presentations at each step of the counting and tabulation process to ensure that all witnesses understand its key aspects. Information shared by election board members during the counting and tabulation process on November 2 was helpful, and the Center recommends that this communication be increased for the December 14 general election.
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