Tribes Challenge New Montana Laws That Restrict Voting Rights

May 17, 2021 10:30 am

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BILLINGS, Mont. — The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Native American Rights Fund (NARF) today challenged two new Montana laws that hinder Native American participation in the state’s electoral process.

The first, HB 176, ends same-day registration, which reservation voters have relied upon to cast votes in Montana since 2005. The second, HB 530, blocks organized ballot collection on rural reservations. Just last year, a Montana court struck down a similar measure after listening to “cold, hard data” on its detrimental impact on the Native vote.

Today’s lawsuit against HB 176 and HB 530 was brought on behalf of Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, Native American-led organizations focused on getting out the vote and increasing civic participation in the Native American community; and the Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Fort Belknap Indian Community, and Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

“Montana politicians are once again targeting the voting rights of Native Americans. They tried and failed last time, and we urge the court to swiftly reject this latest attempt to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters in rural tribal communities,” said Alora Thomas-Lundborg, senior staff attorney with the ACLUs Voting Rights Project.

Rural reservations are the most isolated voter locations in Montana. The distance to travel to register and vote, limited mail routes, disproportionately high levels of poverty on reservations, and digital divide issues isolate Native Americans from participating in the political process.

To overcome these barriers, many rely on same-day voter registration so they can make just one trip to the polling center to register and vote on the same day. Native Americans living on reservations disproportionately rely on same-day registration, especially voters on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in northwest Montana.

“These laws are an unconstitutional attack on the right of Native Americans to vote,” said NARF staff attorney Jacqueline De León. “They’re part of a pattern of carefully designed laws that make voting more difficult for some voters than others, which the court has already recognized does not serve the state.”

Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote work to protect Native American voting rights. As part of that effort, they engage in get-out-the-vote work in tribal communities and in urban areas. A critical part of this work is voter education and voter registration. Both organizations regularly provide rides to county election offices on Election Day so that voters can register and vote.

“Native people have been fighting for the right to vote and fair and equal access to the polls for the last 75 years. We are now in 2021, and instead of dismantling barriers to the polls for citizens we serve, some Montana legislators have quickly built them back up even though a Montana court previously ruled the obstacles created for Indigenous voters ‘are simply too high and too burdensome to remain the law,’” said Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director of Western Native Voice. “Western Native Voice will continue to organize, grow, and gain support from other concerned Montanans for equal access to the polls. We will continue to work together to tear down the barriers that our disenfranchised communities face before they cast their ballot in the next election.”

“These measures are not only blatant attacks on Native American communities but also pose a clear and present danger to the foundations of our democracy. HB 176 and HB 530 violate arguably our most important right — the right to vote. These harmful bills will prevent many Montanans from exercising that fundamental right to participate in the democratic process,” said Alex Rate, legal director of the ACLU of Montana.

The lawsuit, Western Native Voice v. Jacobsen, was filed in the Montana 13th Judicial District Court of Yellowstone County.


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