ACLU and Indian Rights Group Seek to Secure Voting Rights for Montana's Native Americans

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
July 7, 1999 12:00 am

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MISSOULA, MT — In two lawsuits filed here today in U.S. District Court, Indian tribal members said that county election practices dilute their voting strength, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.

The lawsuits, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, the ACLU of Montana and the Indian Law Resource Center on behalf of 11 individuals, ask the court to create single-member districts that would give Indians the same opportunity non-Indians now have to elect candidates of their choice.

At issue is the at-large method of electing the Board of Commissioners in Rosebud County and the Board of Trustees of Ronan-Pablo School District 30 in Lake County.

According to an analysis conducted by state and ACLU experts in a previous voting rights case in Montana, state election returns show that in contests with Indian and non-Indian candidates, Indian candidates usually get a majority of the Indian votes, while non-Indian candidates usually get a majority of non-Indian votes.

But even though both Rosebud and Lake counties include substantial voting blocs of Indians, the ACLU said, their votes are diluted by the white majority.

“In a majority white district, it doesn’t matter how many Indian voters turn out — the white candidate is going to win 99 percent of the time,” said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “The at-large election practice is illegal because it prevents Indians from participating equally in the political process.”

Charlene Alden, one of the plaintiffs and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, said that the at-large election practice has discouraged Indians from running countywide. “They know they won’t get enough support from non-Indian voters,” she said.

In contrast, state elections are conducted through single-member districts, which include majority-Indian districts. Indians have frequently run in local house and senate districts in Rosebud County. Indians have also run and been elected to office in majority Indian school board districts in the county.

The lawsuits filed today are similar to an ACLU suit filed several years ago in Windy Boy v. County of Big Horn, which resulted in a single-member district plan for the county commission. After the new plan was implemented, Indians were elected to the commission for the first time.

In Lake County, a majority of the students attending the Ronan-Pablo School District 30 are Indian, but the district is two-thirds white. Since the early 1970s, Indians have run for school trustee 17 times; only one Indian has ever been elected. In that instance, Ron Bick won a seat on the school board in 1990, at about the same time he became a tribal member. But he was defeated three years later when he ran for re-election.

Jeannine Padilla, another plaintiff and a tribal member, has also run for the school board. She attended the Salish-Kootenai College and works for the tribe as a contract specialist. She has children in the public schools and has been active in the Indian Education Parent Committee. But while running for the school board, she encountered negative racial attitudes firsthand.

“One white lady said ‘we have to get everybody out to vote because there’s another Indian running,'” Padilla said. “I didn’t realize that people could be so shallow.”

Clayton Matt, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has run for the school board three times. Matt is the manager of the tribe’s water administration program and holds a masters degree from the University of Arizona. His children attend public schools and he believes that “there should be an Indian presence on the school board.”

“Historically, Native American residents of Montana have been subject to private as well as official discrimination on the basis of race, tribal, and language minority status,” said Tim Coulter, Executive Director of the Indian Law Resource Center. “One way to counter discrimination is to ensure that Native Americans are able to participate equally with others in the political process.”

Since the 1970’s, a number of so-called “white rights” groups have proliferated in Montana, including Montanans Opposed to Discrimination (MOD), Citizens Rights Organization (CRO), and Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA).

These groups have been particularly active in Lake County, where non-Indians own almost half of the land on the reservation, and have argued that the state should exercise exclusive jurisdiction over non-Indians and non-Indian land. They have also called for termination of the reservations.

Last year, U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, R-MT, proposed a bill calling for the assumption of expanded civil jurisdiction by the state over Indian reservations — a move that further polarized the Indian and non-Indian communities in Montana. Indians viewed the proposal as another attack on tribal sovereignty and turned out in large numbers at public hearings in Billings and Kalispell to voice their opposition to the bill. Burns later withdrew the measure.

The two cases are Matt v. Ronan School District 30, Lake County, Montana and Alden v. Board of County Commissioners of Rosebud County, Montana.

The plaintiffs in Matt v. Ronan School District 30 are Clayton Matt and Jeannine Padilla, both of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The plaintiffs Alden v. Board of County Commissioners of Rosebud County are Charlene Alden, Fred Belly Mule, Holda Roundstone, Danny Sioux, Wilbur Spang, James Walks Along, Phillip Whiteman, Jr., Florence Whiteman, all members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and Lynette Two Bulls, who is Sioux. They are represented by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Indian Law Resource Center.

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