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Montana restricted voting rights challenged

BILLINGS, Mont. — On May 17th, 2021 the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Native American Rights Fund (NARF) challenged two new Montana laws that hinder Native American participation in the state’s electoral process.

The lawsuit against HB 176 and HB 530 was brought on behalf of Western Native Voice (WNV) and Montana Native Vote (MNV) and the Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Fort Belknap Indian Community, and Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

As reported by NSNT in an earlier story, HB 176, ends same-day registration, which reservation voters have relied upon to cast votes in Montana since 2005. The second, HB 530, blocks organized ballot collection on rural reservations. Just last year, a Montana court struck down a similar measure after listening to “cold, hard data” on its detrimental impact on the Native vote.

According to several national media accounts, the effort to restrict voting for people of color and low-income status is part of a larger agenda promoted by the more extreme element of the Republican party.  More than 300 similar laws were considered in legislatures across the country, with the Montana Legislature operating under a “super” Republican majority falling in step.  Democratic efforts combined with the Indian caucus, consisting of tribal member legislators were outnumbered when opposing these bills. Similar laws in other states will likely also be challenged according to national political predictions…

WNV and MNV work to protect Native American voting rights. As part of that effort, they engage in get-out-the-vote work in tribal communities and in urban areas. A critical part of this work is voter education and voter registration. Both organizations regularly provide rides to county election offices on Election Day so that voters can register and vote.

“We really need the help of ACLU and NARF to help fight these short-sighted, almost racist bills,” commented Norma Bixby, Northern Cheyenne WNV Board Member.  “No single plaintiff has the resources to fight this alone.”

“Montana politicians are once again targeting the voting rights of Native Americans. They tried and failed last time, and we urge the court to swiftly reject this latest attempt to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters in rural tribal communities,” said Alora Thomas-Lundborg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Rural reservations are the most isolated voter locations in Montana. The distance to travel to register and vote, limited mail routes, disproportionately high levels of poverty on reservations, and digital divide issues often limit the ability of Native Americans from participating in the political process.

To overcome these barriers, many rely on same-day voter registration so they can make just one trip to the polling center to register and vote on the same day. Native Americans living on reservations disproportionately rely on same-day registration, especially voters on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in northwest Montana.

“These laws are an unconstitutional attack on the right of Native Americans to vote,” said NARF staff attorney Jacqueline De León. “They’re part of a pattern of carefully designed laws that make voting more difficult for some voters than others, which the court has already recognized does not serve the state.”

“Native people have been fighting for the right to vote and fair and equal access to the polls for the last 75 years. We are now in 2021, and instead of dismantling barriers to the polls for citizens we serve, some Montana legislators have quickly built them back up even though a Montana court previously ruled the obstacles created for Indigenous voters ‘are simply too high and too burdensome to remain the law,’” said Ronnie Jo Horse, WNV executive director. “Western Native Voice will continue to organize, grow, and gain support from other concerned Montanans for equal access to the polls. We will continue to work together to tear down the barriers that our disenfranchised communities face before they cast their ballot in the next election.”

These measures are not only blatant attacks on Native American communities but also pose a clear and present danger to the foundations of our democracy. HB 176 and HB 530 violate arguably our most important right — the right to vote. These harmful bills will prevent many Montanans from exercising that fundamental right to participate in the democratic process,” said Alex Rate, legal director of the ACLU of Montana. Rate is the lead ACLU attorney on the case.

The lawsuit, Western Native Voice v. Jacobsen, was filed in the Montana 13th Judicial District Court of Yellowstone County.  Christy Jacobsen is the Montana Secretary of State, the primary state official responsible for seeing that State election laws are properly implemented and followed.

Generally. such cases wend slowly through the federal judicial system.   NSNT will provide updates about developments in this significant case.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

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