The Montana Democratic Party has rejected a March 6, 2013, request from Mark Wandering Medicine, Northern Cheyenne, to endorse the Native side in the voting-rights lawsuit, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch. The case is before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Linda McCulloch, Montana’s Democratic secretary of state and head voting official, is the lead defendant.
The other defendants are mostly Democratic county officials, along with a handful of Republicans, who refused to set up on-reservation early-voting offices ahead of the 2012 election, citing lack of time and money. They ended up in court, facing 16 plaintiffs from Montana tribes seeking the polling stations.
Montana Democratic spokesperson Chris Saeger said the party’s focus would remain on grassroots organizing. “That’s where our strength lies. Montana Democrats will continue to improve access to voting on reservations by registering people and by helping them get to the polls.”
In contrast, next door in South Dakota, its Democratic Party is preparing a statewide resolution supporting a similar suit brought by Oglala Sioux Tribe members, who want permanent early voting in their county, said party chair Ben Nesselhuf. In late April, he will meet with other states’ Democratic leaders and request a national resolution backing the Oglala suit.
Nesselhuf expects other states’ chairpersons to be shocked. “Outside of South Dakota, even longtime voting advocates are amazed when I describe tribes’ roadblocks to equal access,” Nesselhuf said. “I tell them the Deep South has no monopoly on voting-rights problems.”
He was optimistic, though: “There is no shortage of hurdles, but if we’re all committed to doing the right thing, it’ll happen.”
For its part, the Montana Democratic Party seems wary of discussing Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch or Wandering Medicine’s letter. Chairman Jim Elliott did not respond to Indian Country Today Media Network requests for an interview. Secretary of State McCulloch’s office has refused to comment because the lawsuit is ongoing. An official of the Montana Indian Democrats Council, Stacey Otterstrom, Little Shell Tribe, said the group discusses voting rights “all the time.” However, said Otterstrom, the council had not discussed Wandering Medicine’s letter, and only party spokesperson Saeger could comment on it.
In his letter, Wandering Medicine asked whether the Montana party’s platform had any teeth. The platform expresses broad sympathy for Native issues—including voting rights, as has long been typical of the Democratic Party.
“But does the Montana party have real intent to support Native people?” asked Wandering Medicine in an interview with ICTMN. “Does their platform apply to the current situation in Montana? If the statements don’t apply here and now, it’s not fair to say they’re speaking in the best interests of Native Americans.”
Saeger delineated the party’s efforts. “To get out the vote in American Indian communities in the last election cycle, we recruited dozens of volunteers, provided countless rides to the polls, launched radio ads, registered thousands of voters on reservations, spent thousands of dollars and sent thousands of mail pieces. We will continue that commitment in 2014.”
O.J. Semans, Rosebud Sioux and executive director of voting-rights group Four Directions, said that wasn’t the point. “No matter how much they’re on the ground, one day for Montana’s Native people to vote [Election Day] does not equal the 20 days [Election Day plus early voting] that everyone else gets.”
“This lawsuit comes down to one thing,” said Wandering Medicine. “Can we participate in the things we’re entitled to?”
Said Semans: “In 2013, Native Americans are fighting voting-rights battles that African Americans fought in the 60s. This is as important to tribes now as it was to them in 1965.”
Watch Mark Wandering Medicine discuss the issue here.