2021 Montana Laws Limit Native Voter Participation

Photo: gillfoto / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Attorney: Jacqueline De León, Samantha Kelty, Matthew L. Campbell

Photo of the capitol dome and building

Montana capitol building. Photo by gillfoto / CC BY-SA

In the final weeks of the legislative session, Montana legislators passed two laws that will hinder Native American participation in the state’s electoral process. The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) filed Western Native Voice V. Jacobsen on behalf of the Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe challenges two discriminatory voting laws: HB 176 and HB 530. The case complaint is available at https://narf.org/nill/documents/20210517mt_voting_rights_complaint.pdf.

One of the new laws ends same-day registration (HB 176), which reservation voters have relied upon to cast votes in Montana since 2005. The other new law attempts to block organized ballot collection on rural reservations (HB 530), in spite of the thirteenth district court ruling unconstitutional a similar anti-ballot collection law in Western Native Voice v. Stapleton in 2020.

“These laws are an unconstitutional attack on the right of Native Americans to vote, and we look forward to proving it in court,” said NARF Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León.

In partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, and the American Civil Liberties Union, who represent Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote in Western Native Voice v. Jacobsen, NARF filed a case in Billings challenging the constitutionality of the two laws. As part of their voter education and voter registration efforts, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote regularly provide rides from tribal communities to county election offices on Election Day so that voters can register and vote.

The new laws show an ongoing pattern of anti-Native election-related legislation in the state. On a national level, when the Montana bills became law in May 2021, 13 state legislatures with sizeable Native populations had introduced over 100 bills that would disenfranchise Native voters.

“These laws are part of a broader scheme by the Montana legislature to attempt to cut out the Native vote. We stopped them before and we’ll do it again,” said NARF Staff Attorney Samantha Kelty.

Designed to Affect Native Voters in Montana

Photo of long dirt road leading to mountains in Montana

Montana road to mountains. Photo by Jaix Chaix / CC BY-SA

The two new laws will limit votes from a group of voters that comprises nearly 7% of Montana’s population. Residents living on the seven tribal reservations within the borders of Montana contend with limited mail delivery service and great distances from voting registration and polling centers.

Photo of VOTE pin in open hand

Native Americans voting from rural reservations must often drive twice as far as other citizens to register and to vote. Election-day registration allows Native American voters residing on the lands of the Blackfeet Nation, for example, to coordinate one long-distance trip to participate in elections. Ballot collection services in Montana offer Native voters a reliable way to cast a vote from rural locations. To learn more about the barriers Native Americans overcome to participate in non-tribal elections and other attempts to restrict Native voter participation, visit vote.narf.org.

Related Litigation: Western Native Voice v. Stapleton

The Native American Rights Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana filed a case against Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. The Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), introduced by State Sen. Albert Olszewski (R), passed in 2018.

On September 25, 2020, Yellowstone County District Court Judge Jessica T. Fehr ruled that blocking ballot collection does not serve the state due to the detrimental impacts on Native voters which NARF proved through “cold, hard data.” The Native American Rights Fund won the court decision against the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA) for the Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Crow Tribe, and Fort Belknap Indian Community. ACLU Montana won the case with NARF for the Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote.

“For over three years, the Native American Rights Fund has researched every aspect of Native voting rights and attempts to disenfranchise Native voters in Montana,” explained De León, one of the NARF attorneys who presented irrefutable evidence about BIPA’s negative impact on the Native vote. “We know how Native Americans overcome barriers to cast a vote in Montana.”

Learn more about NARF’s work to protect Native voting rights at vote.narf.org.

Obstacles at Every Turn

image of the cover of the report. Native American man wrapped in US flagIn 2020, NARF’s Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC) published Obstacles at Every Turn: Barriers to Political Participation Faced by Native American Voters, available at vote.narf.org. The report summarizes the circumstances behind the growing number of Native voting rights cases in the U.S. court system.

NAVRC and NARF collected feedback on the issues by hosting the nine field hearings. More than 120 witnesses from dozens of tribes testified at field hearings in Bismarck, N. Dakota, Milwaukee, Wis., Phoenix, Ariz., Portland, Ore., Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians reservation in Valley Center, Calif., Tulsa, Okla., Isleta Pueblo, N. Mexico, Sacramento, Calif., and in Tuba City on the Navajo Nation, Ariz.

Stand with Us

Please stand with us in protecting Native voting rights! To help communities build a brighter future for all, Native Americans must retain their right to vote. The Native American Rights Fund protects Native voting rights in Montana and across the country. Donate today to support our nonprofit legal organization.

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