Suit targets laws that opponents say hurt Native Americans

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of Native American voting rights organizations and four tribes challenging new laws they say are part of a broader scheme by the Montana Legislature to disenfranchise Native American voters.

The Legislature passed a bill to eliminate Election Day voter registration by closing late registration at noon on the Monday before Election Day. It also approved a bill including a provision to prohibit the paid collection of absentee ballots.

Plaintiffs Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote participate in get-out-the-vote efforts on reservations, including collecting absentee ballots and driving people to polls to register and vote on Election Day.

The Native rights organizations along with the Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Fort Belknap Indian Community and Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed the lawsuit in District Court in Billings. It names Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the state’s chief elections officer, as the defendant.

“The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a Secretary of State that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures,” Jacobsen said.

Jacqueline De León, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which is representing Western Native Vote and Montana Native Voice, said the laws are an unconstitutional attack on the right of Native Americans to vote.

“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,” she said.

Montana and Arizona are among several states controlled politically by Republicans who are tightening election rules. Democrats say the new rules will disproportionately affect minorities and lower-income voters. Florida, Georgia and Iowa already have enacted voting restrictions, and Texas is debating its own set of tighter rules.

The legal challenge in Montana comes after similar concerns were raised in Arizona over voter restrictions passed by Republicans that that they say are designed to strengthen the integrity of elections.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the Arizona changes, which could result in tens of thousands of people being purged from a list of voters who automatically get a ballot by mail, belittle tribes and fail to recognize the unique challenges Native Americans face when casting ballots. That includes driving hours to reach polling places, unreliable mail service and the need for more Native language translators.

In March, President Joe Biden issued an executive order creating a Native American Voting Rights Steering Group. It’s tasked with consulting with tribes nationwide to address barriers to voting, among other things

Last year, two judges in Billings, Montana, struck down a voter-passed law that limited people to delivering only six ballots to an elections office and required that person to fill out a form saying whose ballot they had dropped off.

Attorneys argued the law harmed Native Americans who lack adequate mail, transportation and voting services on reservations, all of which make it difficult for them to mail or deliver their own ballots or to vote in person.

“This case and the facts presented at trial turn a spotlight to our fellow citizens that still live below the poverty line with limits to health care, government services, mail services and election offices — those citizens are the Native Americans that reside on reservations within Montana’s borders,” District Judge Jessica Fehr wrote in September.

Despite that ruling, the Legislature passed a similar bill this year, the lawsuit states, calling it “nothing short of discriminatory.”

Supporters argued that eliminating Election Day registration will allow election clerks to focus on voting on Election Day and noted that people can register and vote on the same day in the 30 days prior to an election.

Opponents said it would deny the right to vote to people who might have an error on their registration or those who have moved and not updated their registration. Election Day registration has been in effect in Montana since 2005.

Lawmakers who sought to prohibit paid ballot collection said they did so to improve election security, although voter fraud has not been an issue in Montana.

The Montana Democratic Party filed a lawsuit last month challenging the ballot collection restrictions along with another law that requires additional proof of residency for people using their student identifications to register or vote.

Montana lawmakers appropriated $100,000 to the Secretary of State’s Office for election litigation.