In spare and elegant prose, the United States has weighed in on behalf of Montana Native voters suing for early-voting satellite offices on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations. The “statement of interest” the Department of Justice submitted October 24 in U.S. District Court in Billings quotes legal precedent and a new statistical analysis by University of Wyoming professor Gerald Webster, a specialist in the relationship of geography to elections.
Using Census and geographical data, Webster showed that average distances Native voters must travel to existing early-voting places in the three counties being sued are “extreme”—from 189 percent to 267 percent higher than for white voters.
Plaintiffs’ briefs show that the lead plaintiff—Northern Cheyenne tribal member and veteran Mark Wandering Medicine—must travel nearly 200 miles round-trip to early-vote.
Webster also tallied Native voters’ greater poverty rates and lower vehicle ownership, making it hard for them to bridge the geographical gap. The federal government concluded, “the practical reality is that Indian voters in [Montana’s] Big Horn, Blaine, and Rosebud counties do not have the same opportunity as white voters.”
The counties say they don’t want to pay for the extra offices for something they call mere “convenience voting” in a brief submitted by attorneys including Sara Frankenstein, of the firm Gunderson, Palmer, in Rapid City, South Dakota. Said Frankenstein, “The counties aren’t bottomless pits of money.” They have other services they must pay for.
Frankenstein called the tribal lawsuit a “slippery slope” to more demands and “opening the floodgates” to more voting-rights litigation. She noted that Indians have other ways to vote, such as on Election Day or by mail.
“The fact that Indians can vote in other ways does not justify treating them unequally when it comes to satellite offices,” said Laughlin McDonald, head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights section. The “floodgate” argument is without merit, he added. “Granting equal voting rights is what the Voting Rights Act is about and requires.”
If the counties lose at this stage of the suit, they want the plaintiffs to put up a $90,000 bond against the cost of satellite offices. That way, if the counties eventually win, they can be reimbursed, said Frankenstein. She was not aware of a precedent for the request, she said.
Neither was McDonald. “I am not aware of any voting rights cases in which such a bond has been required,” he said, comparing the concept to an unconstitutional poll tax.
O.J. Semans, head of Four Directions, a voting rights group that’s been advising the plaintiffs, called the $90,000 “a reflection of how much they fear Native voting.” He described the secretary of states’ and counties’ position as “the same tired points that are failing in South Dakota.” There, Oglala plaintiffs secured early voting after filing a federal suit.
It’s all about equal voting rights, said Rosebud County Commissioner Danny Sioux, a Northern Cheyenne: “The present practices—including extreme distances to the current voting offices, cultural communication barriers, demands for forms of street address that don’t exist on the reservation when we try to register and law-enforcement racial profiling when we go to the county seat to vote—deny access to Native voters.”