The 51% Debate Continues

From a purely mathematical standpoint, 51% of 909 is actually 463.59, so it was technically correct to say that the constitution did not receive the required number of votes, which, when rounded upward, would have been 464 votes, one more than it actually got, 463. But the fact that 17 more people voted in favor of the constitution than opposed it eventually carried the day, as it had always been the practice at the Tribal Council that elections and referendums could be decided by one vote, or, in other words, 50% plus one. As Head Chief John Loran pointed out, the signature of the three chiefs (or at least two of the three) was the law of the land, and since a law or constitution was not legal until they signed it, the Tribal Council was satisfied that it had been legally passed, and so they certified the results.

As if to prove the notion that the most important political decisions in Mohawk country are made around the dinner table, when the Tribal Council convened their June monthly meeting one week after the referendum, it was Clerk Carol Herne’s husband, Julius “Speed” Herne, a former tribal chief, who took the floor to question the legality of the constitution:

Julius Herne – I have a question, apparently the numbers were not there and how do you propose to implement this when there is no judicial branch, why would you even think of implementing it without all three branches. Why would you change the government to an [in-]between State in other words.

[Chief John Loran] – We feel that it was in this Tribal Council’s power to certify and sign off on that vote because until the Tribal Council Constitution is in effect this council is in power so we have the ability to certify and sign off until that constitution is good.

J.H. – So in other words, it didn’t even need a vote.

J.L. – No, we got the vote.

J.H. – No, you got the vote but in other words you didn’t need the vote.

J.L. – Yes we needed the vote that’s why we had the vote because if we wanted to do it by decree we would have done it that way but we decided not to do it that way so we held the vote.

J.H. – And then you made the decision by decree anyway without the knowledge.

J.L. – Yeah we made it by decree, it won by majority.

J.H. – It’s pretty tough to imagine that it was just done in the Constitution that said 51 percent and 51 percent was not reached but it’s in there anyway, I mean that’s a pretty tough joe to swallow, your decree is the proper word as far as I’m concerned. The chiefs say it is so it is, smile, grin and bare it.164

Eventually committee member Harry Benedict grew tired of the debate.

[Harry Benedict] – It says 51 percent for adoption, but that 51 percent simply means majority, if a 100 people voted, 51 will pass it.

J.H. – How come it didn’t say majority –

H.B. – If the people in this community do not attend these hearings or any of these meetings, don’t blame the people that has had the chance, blame yourselves, I’m sick and tired of people yelling at us when they don’t even bother to read the Constitution or attend the meetings.165

Chiefs Loran and Tarbell defended their decision to certify the vote. Then community member James Ransom commended the Constitution Committee for the work they did before expressing his thoughts.

I think that that for the argument of semantics of 51 percent is majority and if you want to go strictly math then it’s not 51 percent or whatever. I don’t think that is the point, I think that the Constitution is an important document for this community, you’re setting up the future of this community and supposedly it is going to be the law of the land here and whether it’s 50.9 or 51.1. I don’t think the work of this committee is done yet and you’ve certainly got the attention of the community now and I think that there is a lot more work that needs to be done. It’s so important for our future and we’ve gone so many years without it, then what is a little bit longer and let’s do it right, but your credibility of this Constitution is at stake here, we have to believe in it and if you’re taking this route now, I don’t think it will hurt to hold it off and have more meetings, find out if there are more changes needed, it’s only going to strengthen it not weaken it.166

Later in the meeting, former Tribal Chief Lincoln White spoke at length in support of the constitution:

I wish to compliment the Constitution committee and the Tribal Council and the people finally adopting the Constitution. In my brief experience working with other tribes, I found that the tribes that have Constitutions have amendable and that represents the wishes of the people is a tremendous asset to all phases of your tribalization, especially in your areas of economic development. Any person who is an enterprising person can wishes to take a certificate to an outside investor, can now take the Constitution to validate the fact that we have those kinds of credentials, it’s extremely important…I compliment the council for making that decision, certifying the vote and I was privileged to serve on a Ad Hock committee with former chief Leonard Garrow and Rick Terrance to review the votes on the Constitution and we looked at this very carefully and when we subtracted the invalid votes from the total number that actually voted, 923, the final result was 51 percent, so best of luck to you, I hope you have a great deal of success and I realize that the responsibility that will fall on the shoulders of the leadership from July 1st, the head chief, the principle chief will be the chief executive officer and he will have full pledged legislative body to work with, I think that is excellent, and I hope we have the same kind of progression and success in getting the judicial system set up, thank you.167

Although the supportive words of a fellow former chief brought a round of applause from the audience, it wasn’t enough to satisfy Herne:

Again, I’d like to say that I think it’s mighty strange that this vote was put in by 50% of how many voters that came around and happened to vote, now to make sure that this vote is never changed, we need a majority of 30 percent of eligible voters, if there are 4000 eligible voters we’re talking about 1200 votes, in this vote it was probably the largest ? that we’ve ever had at 923, I got this number from Lincoln, that thing will never change, but you casted it in stone.168

Despite Herne’s insistence that the constitution did not receive the 51% of the vote called for in its adoption clause, the Tribal Council was determined to move forward with the transition. As had happened in the previous meeting on the issue, the conversation then segued to questions about how this transition would actually take place. The issue of the 51% would continue to resurface in days to come, but for the time being the members of the Tribal Council focused on preparing themselves and their staff for the changes to their way of doing business.

164  The Saint Regis Mohawk Monthly Tribal Meeting, Draft, June 10, 1995, p. 2.  Index # TC—II—30.
165  Ibid, p. 4.
166  Ibid, p. 5.
167  Ibid, p. 8.
168  Ibid, p. 8.

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