A federal judge in Montana rejected an emergency request Tuesday by 15 Native American plaintiffs who argue the lack of polling places on reservations violates the Voting Rights Act and amounts to discrimination. The judge, Richard Cebull, acknowledged Native Americans do not have equal access to the polls, but said the plaintiffs were unable to prove “that they can’t elect the candidates of their choice.”
I’m not arguing that the opportunity is equal for Indian persons as it is to non-Indians . . . Because of poverty, because of the lack of vehicles and that sort of thing, it’s probably not equal. However, you have to prove … that they can’t elect candidates of their choice.
The emergency ruling means the state will not set up satellite voting stations on reservations for this November’s election. The lawsuit, however, will continue after the election. The Native American vote is crucial to the reelection of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and maintaining the Senate’s Democratic majority.
Most Native Americans in Montana — of which an estimated 30,000 are eligible voters — live on reservations that lack voting stations. As a result, some have to travel more than 120 miles to complete voter registration and fill out early voting forms. With higher than average poverty and unemployment rates, it is likely some Native Americans lack the resources to travel such distances.
The state claims the tribes did not give enough notice for anything to be done, but the plaintiffs sent a letter to Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch in early May requesting assistance. They also offered to cover the cost of setting up the satellite stations. The Department of Justice supports the Native Americans’ lawsuit and says, “Without an injunction, Native Americans in Big Horn, Blaine, and Rosebud counties will not have the same electoral opportunities as their white counterparts.”
— Greg Noth