Cherokee voters will go to the polls today to cast ballots in an election that has had more twists and turns than a night crawler on a fish hook.

The principal chief contest, which has dragged on three months longer than anticipated, pits former Principal Chad Smith and longtime Tribal Councilman Bill John Baker.

Multiple counts of the ballots cast June 25 showed both men coming out on top twice before the tribe's highest court ruled the contest too close to call.

Since then, disputes about whether the descendants of slaves formerly owned by Cherokee citizens created additional turmoil. After being dropped from the tribal rolls Aug. 22, more than 1,200 freedmen will be allowed to vote.

A federal court order issued Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. provides freedmen extra time to vote. But tribal officials say all other eligible voters - if they haven't voted already - must do so today.

At stake is the selection of the man who will lead the state's largest tribe, which has more than 300,000 citizens nationwide. The Cherokee Nation employees 8,200 people and has a $1.3 billion impact in Oklahoma.

Baker said the election is "an historic opportunity to take back our nation for the Cherokee people."

"Our ancestors taught us that Cherokees are a family," Baker said. "But over the past decade, our leaders have stopped taking care of our family."

Smith said Saturday's contest that will allow those who failed to vote in June to choose a leader with a proven track record.

"We win awards for our auditing practices, our budget for health care is 16 times as large as when I took office," Smith said. "We've built the Three Rivers Clinic in Muskogee and created more than 5,000 jobs."

Baker said there needs to be a shift in the tribe's priorities from "a small group of wealthy insiders" to the Cherokee people.

"I am running for the elder in Bell who can't get clean drinking water," Baker said. "I'm running for the young boy in Vian who doesn't have a warm coat to wear to school in the winter, and I am running for the Cherokee just graduating from school who wants to start her own business but just needs a little hand up to get started."

Smith cited his record as a representative of the Cherokee people and a protector against attacks against the tribe's sovereignty.

With early balloting up more than 50 percent compared with the turnout in June, both men recognized the importance of exercising the right to vote.

"Over the past few months we have learned that truly every vote counts," Baker said. "This Saturday I hope that each and every Cherokee comes out to let their voice be heard."

Smith said he sees the increased interest in the election as a sense of urgency that was lacking leading up the general election in June.

"Well, our voters sure have that now," Smith said. "Thousands more Cherokee voters requested mail-in ballots this time around, and early voting is showing high participation as well."

While the interest in the principal chief election appears to be peaking, the tribe will have to wait until Oct. 8 before the outcome is known.

In accordance with the federal court order, freedmen will have until Oct. 8 to return absentee ballots and two additional days to cast ballots at the Cherokee Nation Election Commission Office.

Walk-in voting by eligible freedmen voters will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Oct. 6. Absentee ballots cast by freedmen must be received by mail no later than noon Oct. 8 or by 7 p.m. Oct. 8 if they are hand-delivered to the office.