“We get two things out of that: we get increased voter participation and it costs less. That’s a big jump for us.” — Vernon Courtwright, MCN Election Board member
Gary Fife/Radio Communications Specialist
New staff director, policies come to MCN Election Board
OKMULGEE, Okla. — There is a new director and atmosphere at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Election Board.
Nelson Harjo Jr. has been selected to replace Nettie Harjo, who retired. The new director and Election Board member Vernon Courtwright visited Mvskoke Radio May 17, to answer questions about changes in the board’s activity.
In March of this year, an Election Board review panel released its report and recommendations for change.
Courtwright described the origin of the legislation that began the process.
“There was a bill submitted by Rep. James Jennings that specifically recommended that a committee be established and sort of gave them some broad guidelines about what they should be looking for,” he said.
Harjo pointed to a focus on serving citizens and the public.
“One of the things that we have been encouraging at the office is not only the emphasis on customer service to our citizens and the general public that have questions the Creek Nation elections, how does it work, how does it take place, what do I have to do to register, what is an absentee vote, all these routine questions.
“We’re really emphasizing a more open line of communications with anybody who comes into our office,” he said.
Courtwright said new changes in the technology now available for implementation in the election process called for the board and staff to look into how they approached Creek elections.
“There are plenty of reasons for us to change. Technology is advancing to the point where we’re going to make it easier for citizens to vote. Actually a lot of the things that the review committee made, statements that were made were problems that we were actually working on.
We have some new people on board, myself and Wendy Dunson. We both came on with the idea that we would like to see some changes,” he said.
There are over 80,000 tribal members, but only around 17,000 are registered to vote.
One of the major ideas being discussed is doing away with the majority of polling places and going to a vote by mail. A centralized polling place would remain for Creeks who prefer casting their ballots in person, Courtwright said.
“The first thing that we’re working on, I don’t know if we’re going to get it passed in time, is that we’d like to have in-person early voting that will probably be only available to one or two polling sites. The second thing that is really big is totally absentee voting.
“The Choctaws have been total absentee voting for years, probably 15 or 20 years. They routinely get anywhere between 40 to, as high as 80 percent voter participation. In the Creek Nation, if we get 30 percent, we think that’s great,” he said.
Courtwright explained the reasons for all-absentee voting.
“There are two reasons for doing that. It’s easier for people to do that. The technology is there for us to enable that. The second, main reason, that I think the National Council will like, and that is, it’s going to be cheaper,” he said. “We get two things out of that: we get increased voter participation and it costs less. That’s a big jump for us.”
Courtwright emphasized that the board recognized that many Muscogee citizens would still prefer to cast their vote in person.
“A lot of our elders have always enjoyed going to the polls and visiting after they vote and I was one of those myself,” he said. “Anymore these days, we don’t have the time.”
He added centralized polling locations will still be available for those who wish to use that option.
One of the controversial questions was the requirement of a #2 pencil to mark a ballot. Harjo said that had been changed and a regular black ink pen could be used.
Another election problem they hope has been solved is a records review and update to eliminate the names of citizens that are deceased. Those names would be removed from the rolls and could not be used to falsely vote.
Other changes, Harjo said, would be a more public notice of the date and time of Election Board meetings.
The question of election finance is one the Board will be working on.
“We had discussed it in the past. Any change in the election laws has to go through the National Council; it has to be approved and put into the election codes. There really hasn’t been a lot of support in terms of that area. It’s actually become more and more important with every election.”
“The more citizens we have, the more money that the tribe has, the chances that there are people, organizations, companies that are out there wanting to take advantage of that. We understand that concern, but at this point, no, we’re not working on anything like that. We’d like to,” Courtwright said.
Absentee request forms will be mailed out June 12.
A candidate fair will be conducted at the Mound Building from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m., July 12.
The dates for candidates to file for election are July 17-19.
Absentee registration will close for the primary election Aug. 24. Regular polling stations will be open for this election.
Absentee ballots will be mailed out Aug. 28 for the primary election.
Precinct registration closes Sept. 6.
The primary election will take place Sept. 16.