TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma (AP) -- The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court decided Sunday to count the number of absentee ballot envelopes from the American Indian tribe's disputed principal chief election, hoping the count might produce a more accurate number of absentee votes.
On the court's third day of hearings in the dispute, justices recessed to travel across Tahlequah to the tribal election commission offices to count envelopes and possibly re-count the absentee ballots. Overall vote totals have been different after several counts, with the major difference being in the number of absentee ballots cast for longtime tribal councilman Bill John Baker and three-term incumbent Chief Chad Smith.
Smith's campaign said Sunday evening that officials counted 6,166 envelopes, hundreds more than the number of ballots counted in the latest re-count.
About 15,000 votes were cast during the June 25 election. Unofficial returns the next morning gave Baker the lead by 11 votes, but the next day the tribal election commission declared Smith the winner by seven votes.
Baker then asked for a hand recount of ballots, which showed him with a 266-vote lead, which led Smith to ask for a machine recount. The court is considering Smith's request, but hasn't decided whether to grant it or possibly order a new election.
Smith maintains that 273 absentee ballots were missing in the hand-recount totals. In court documents, he noted that the number of absentee ballots counted on June 25 was 6,143, but that number dropped to 5,870 during the June 30 recount.
Representatives from both sides were being allowed to observe the envelope count, although the media was barred.
The Tahlequah-based Cherokee Nation is Oklahoma's largest tribe and one of the nation's biggest, with membership approaching 300,000 people. Smith or Baker will administer a $600 million annual tribal budget after an inauguration set for Aug. 14.