On October 10, members of three Montana tribes—Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Gros Ventre and Assiniboine—filed a voting-rights lawsuit in federal court in Billings. One defendant is Montana’s head election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. The other 13 are commissioners and election officers of Rosebud, Big Horn and Blaine counties, which overlap the three tribes’ reservations, respectively, and handle their non-tribal elections.
The tribal members are suing because the officials do not plan to provide the three reservations with satellite offices for early voting, which got underway in Montana on October 9 and runs through election day. The 16 plaintiffs say this violates rights protected by the United States and Montana constitutions and the Voting Rights Act (VRA). All three counties named have lost or settled VRA suits. Today’s failure to provide satellite early voting reinforces a “history of official racial discrimination in voting,” the suit said.
Several counties around the state have minimal satellite offices; most, like the one in Rosebud County, handle local-tax payments and motor-vehicle matters. A few also accept absentee ballots, according to an advisory from the state’s attorney general, Steve Bullock. He told the secretary of state on August 17 that in Montana setting up a full-fledged early-voting satellite office, away from the main one in the county seat, is legal and doable—though optional.
Rosebud County election official Geraldine Custer said logistics influenced her eventual decision not to set up early voting in her existing ancillary office on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. “I don’t care if they’re white, black or Chinese,” she said. “I just don’t have the staff. It’s not about race. I’m just swamped.” Custer also called the attorney general’s advisory “a suggestion” and “a work-around” and noted that he had not termed it a formal “opinion.”
The October 10 lawsuit follows five months of talks between several tribes, the secretary of state and county officials. In the end, only Glacier County chose to provide enhanced early-voting access, to the Blackfeet Nation.
Without satellite offices, members of the remaining seven tribes must travel to county seats to early-vote, said O.J. Semans, the Lakota head of Four Directions, a national voting-rights nonprofit that is consulting with the Montana tribes. The trips can be long—more than 100 miles for the Northern Cheyenne, Semans said. He called such distances a barrier to voting for reservations where unemployment is as high 80 percent and tribal members may not have vehicles or gas money for the journey.
Online, email and faxed ballots have been suggested as substitutes, but most Native people in Montana don’t have these technologies, Semans said. Even applying for, receiving and submitting ballots by mail may not work, due to the transience of very poor people.
“The substitutes are fine for Montana’s predominantly white towns and cities, but not for its reservations,” said Semans, whose South-Dakota-based group has offered to pay for the additional early-voting offices. “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.”
Custer said this was the first she’d heard of such access difficulties. “If it’s a problem here, it’s probably a problem nationally, and we should fix it everywhere.” (She also said her husband is distantly related to both Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his Sioux opponents, who helped the Seventh Cavalry officer secure his place in history in Montana in 1876.)
Custer added that early-voting demands didn’t originate in Montana: “The people from South Dakota got the Montana tribes going.”
A description of Four Directions as “outside agitators” has been floating around the state in recent weeks. Tom Rodgers, a Blackfeet tribal member working with Four Directions, said he was offended. “I have hundreds of relatives on the Blackfeet Reservation. I am not an outsider.”
Rodgers, the whistleblower in the Jack Abramoff scandal, pointed out that Montana’s U.S. Senate race—between the Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and his Republican challenger, Denny Rehberg—may determine control of the Senate. And that means millions in campaign contributions flowing into the state.
However, despite all the money and the influence behind it, tribal members may determine the election—if they can get to the polls—Rodgers said. He recalled that Native support tipped the balance for Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Tim Johnson (D-SD) and others. “It’s the poorest of the poor versus the billionaires,” said Rodgers.
Mysteriously, on August 28, when McCulloch issued a satellite-early-voting advisory (based on the attorney general’s finding), she did not include the tribes. “The Secretary of State’s Office is charged with ensuring the uniform application of election laws, which is why we issued guidance to election administrators,” explained Terri L. McCoy, the secretary of state’s communications director, in an email. Beyond that, McCoy wrote, “this is a local county issue.”
Eventually the tribes found out. In mid-September, the three who are now suing asked that their counties provide satellite early voting.
Four Directions consultant Bret Healy claimed Montana officials have a “frontier mentality,” saying, “The secretary of state has been throwing sand in the gears from the start. It’s been delay and obfuscation. She even suggested we wait and introduce a bill in the legislature next spring. County officials have lied—telling the tribes ‘yes’ when they’d already voted ‘no,’ then finally refusing to open an office.”
What’s it all about? Said Semans: “Delaying until it’s too late, and Native American Indians miss out—again—on equal voting rights.”
McCoy responded that Linda McCulloch has “unwavering commitment to equal access.” The secretary of state’s legal counsel, Jorge Quintana, said the time involved was essential for reviewing the complex election process. He reiterated that Montana’s secretary of state cannot require counties to provide satellite early-voting offices. Only the legislature can do that: “If it does, we’ll move heaven and earth to be sure it happens.”
If tribal members do get more voting access? “We’ll need election protection to be sure elders, younger voters and others don’t suffer intimidation at the polls,” said Rodgers.