Montana Tribal Members Sue For Equal Access to Polls

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"Montana Tribal Members Sue For Equal Access to Polls"

Our guest blogger is Erik Stegman, Manager of the Half in Ten campaign for the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

By artist Steven Paul Judd for the Native Vote Campaign

Angry about a lack of voting services in their communities, a group of Montana tribal members filed suit in federal court on Wednesday seeking an order for local election officials to provide satellite voting stations on their reservations. The plaintiffs, members of the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap tribes, allege under the Voting Rights Act that it is discriminatory to make them drive long distances to county seats to exercise their right to vote. In some cases, they have to drive as far as 113 miles round trip to vote.

The suit alleges:

“Allowing a non-Indian majority county to establish in-person absentee locations at county courthouses but denying the same level of voter access to Indian majority communities is evidence of an invidious discrimination by state and county officials.”

O.J. Seamans (Lakota), Executive Director of Four Directions, a national voting rights organization and party to the suit, said the organization offered to help pay for the satellite voting offices, but county officials refused. “Right now, practically speaking, most Native American Indians in Montana have one day to vote in person—November 6—and no more days to late-register. White people have 20 days. That’s not equal access,” Seamans told Indian Country Today Media Network.

While registered voters in most large cities in Montana are able to vote early at their local county clerk and recorder’s office 30 days before election day, those voters are mostly non-Indian. There are almost 50,000 voting age American Indians in Montana, representing 6.5% of the state voting age population. According to the most recent census, the poverty rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives (28.4%) is nearly double the national rate (15.3 %).

This comes during an election where the stakes are high for tribes in Montana. Recent polls place current Senator and member of the Indian Affairs Committee, Jon Tester in a statistical dead heat with candidate Denny Rehberg. And, President Obama was officially adopted as a member of the Crow Tribe in 2008—one of the tribes with plaintiffs bringing the suit. Both Obama and Tester were supporters of legislation important to tribes such as the Tribal Law and Order Act and the SAVE Native Women Act. Due to their unique nation-to-nation relationship as sovereign governments with the President and Congress, federal elections are especially important for tribal members.

Nationally, tribes have been organizing their members to turnout through efforts like Native Vote.

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