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Cherokee Nation takes steps to protect tribal elections from outside influence, dark money

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Cherokee Nation
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. officially signed a law to reform the tribe’s election code

The Cherokee Nation is taking steps to ensure that dark money doesn't pour into the tribal nation's elections and influence voters. A new law designed to reform the tribal nation's election code was signed into law last week.

Under existing Cherokee election law, every dollar must be accounted for and candidates must disclose where their campaign money comes from. The new law strengthens the penalties for those who don't disclose or follow those rules

In 2019, a group called Cherokees for Change, raised an undisclosed amount of money in support of David Walkingstick, who was running for Principal Chief. Walkingstick was eventually disqualified, but current Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. says the donation highlighted the need for stronger laws.

Todd Hembree, Cherokee Nation's attorney general at the time, launched an investigation into the money.

Hoskin Jr. said Cherokees for Change was a group run by non-Indigneous people and was located in Oklahoma City. He says — to this day — it is still unknown how much money was poured into the campaign.

Hoskin Jr. says there are some in the state that see tribes as an obstacle.

"To come into the nation's largest tribe and dump unlimited, unregulated dark money into an election, I think is an effort to control the government of the Cherokee Nation," said Hoskin Jr. about the law and the efforts of outside groups to influence Cherokee politics.

The Cherokee Phoenix reported in 2019, that Cherokees for Change, an LLC, was sent a letter by the Cherokee Nation Election Commission to stop sending donations to Walkingstick.

The letter stated, "Contributions may only be made by individual natural persons. No corporation, partnership, and/or any other legal entity shall contribute to any Cherokee Nation campaign or candidate."

Deputy Chief Bryan Warner praised the strengthening of the tribal nation's election code.

"This dark money ban is very much about empowering Cherokee citizens with full knowledge about campaign donations," said Warner. "It is building trust. Chief Hoskin and I certainly trust the Cherokee people and think they are entitled to know who funds political campaigns."

Under the reforms that were signed into law this week, any person or entity that tries to make undisclosed donations will be subject to prison time, a $5,000 fine and civil penalties of up to $500,000.

The Council of the Cherokee Nation passed the election code reforms by the body’s Rules Committee in April and was approved last week at the Council’s regular meeting by a vote of 15-0. Councilors Victoria Vazquez and Wes Nofire were absent.

Referring to the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, Hoskin Jr. said Cherokee Nation needs to have protection in their elections.

"We're in a country in which there's a lot of situations where unlimited, unregulated money flows into political campaigns in the United States," said Hoskin Jr.

He thinks that some in the United States are content with that.

"We're not going to have that in the Cherokee Nation."

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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