Montana House kills bill on Native American voting rights

April 1, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana House has killed legislation aimed at making it easier for Native Americans living on reservations to vote.

The bill would have required counties to maintain an alternate election office on reservations and negotiate days and operating hours with tribes. It would put into law the provisions of a 2014 settlement in a voting rights lawsuit that required three counties to open satellite voting offices on reservations twice a week in the month before Election Day.

It would also have put into law guidance issued by the Secretary of State’s Office directing other counties with tribal voters to comply with the settlement.

After a week of work, the bill was passed unanimously by the House State Administration Committee. It was endorsd in the House 53-47 on second reading Monday before failing 48-51 on third reading Wednesday evening.

Committee members and Native American voting advocates said the hope the failed effort could be a starting point to improve voting access on reservations, where people can live far from polls and have limited access to vehicles or mail services.

“I think it’s a really serious issue that could be looked at over the interim to make it better,” Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a Browning Democrat who helped lead the bipartisan working group that developed the compromise legislation, told the Montana State News Bureau. “We just need to pick up the pieces and keep building on that legislation, and maybe build a better one next session.”

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency, said the original bill was scaled back to reduce potential costs to the counties involved.

Andy Werk Jr. , president of the Fort Belknap Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, called into one of the final work sessions to oppose the bill, saying it offered his tribe less than what they were guaranteed under the 2014 court settlement.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder, switched to a “no” vote on Wednesday, saying tribal leadership in his district opposed the amendments.

Republican Rep. Wendy McKamey of Ulm, chair of the committee that crafted the compromise bill, was frustrated with Wednesday’s vote.

“I don’t know how they could possibly vote against this, I don’t,” she said. “”Because it requires accountability and it requires cooperation.”