Western Native Voice v. Stapleton

Location: Montana
Last Update: September 25, 2020

What's at Stake

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Native American Rights Fund challenged a Montana law that severely restricted Native Americans’ access to the ballot. In September 2020, the court issued its ruled for plaintiffs, finding that they presented “cold, hard data” about the law’s impact on Native Americans, and how its costs were “simply too high and too burdensome to remain the law of the State of Montana.”

Due to the great distances between people and places in Montana, most voters in the state vote by mail. Rural tribal communities, including those on Native reservations, work with get-out-the-vote organizers to collect and transport ballots to election offices that would otherwise be inaccessible. This is of particular importance for Native American communities, given the disproportionate lack of access to vehicles and vast distances between voters and post offices on reservations.

In 2018, the Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), a legislatively referred ballot initiative, became law. BIPA imposed severe restrictions on ballot collection efforts that are vital to Native American voters, particularly those who live on rural reservations, by limiting who could return a voted ballot and the total number of ballots any one person could return. This law directly targeted efforts to boost turnout within tribal communities, who rely heavily on ballot collection efforts.

On March 20, 2020, the ACLU, the ACLU of Montana, and the Native American Rights Fund sued in Montana state court, representing Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, two organizations that promote political engagement in the Native American community. On average, the two plaintiff organizations would collect over 85 ballots per organizer, while BIPA limited each organizer to only six ballots. The lawsuit challenged BIPA with violating the voting and due process rights of individuals living on reservations, as well as the free speech and association rights of Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote as they engage in ballot collection on reservations.

On May 20, 2020, the court issued a preliminary injunction, blocking BIPA in advance of a June 2 primary election, and setting the matter for a hearing. On July 7, 2020, the court granted the plaintiffs’ request for preliminary relief, finding that “BIPA serves no legitimate purpose; it fails to enhance the security of absentee voting; it does not make absentee voting easier or more efficient; it does not reduce the costs of conducting elections; and it does not increase voter turnout.”

The case went to trial in September 2020, and on September 25, the court issued its ruling, finding that plaintiffs presented “cold, hard data” about the impact on Native Americans, and how the costs of BIPA are “simply to[o] high and to[o] burdensome to remain the law of the State of Montana.”

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