About six months after the Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA) -- a law that made it harder for Indigenous people living on rural reservations to vote -- was struck down as unconstitutional, lawmakers are set to debate a similarbill that would, once again, infringe on numerous fundamental rights. Not one, but two district courts have already ruled that restrictions on ballot collection violate the right to vote, the right to free speech, and the right to due process.
HB 406, introduced by Rep. Mark Noland, prohibits ballot collection by tribal governments or get-out-the-vote organizations such as Western Native Voice.
In a state where the majority of individuals vote by mail, rural tribal communities work with get-out-the-vote organizers who collect and transport ballots to election offices that would otherwise be inaccessible because of distance, lack of access to transportation, or other socio-economic barriers. These ballot collection efforts are often the only way Indigenous people living on rural reservations can access the vote. Similar to BIPA, this bill would effectively end this practice, disenfranchising Indigenous voters en masse.
“This bill is problematic on a number of levels,” said Sam Forstag, ACLU of Montana Legislative Program Manager. “Montana should be doing everything that it can to make it easier for people to vote, not harder. Worse, this bill targets Indigenous people, who have historically been and continue to be systematically disenfranchised, once again directly harming their ability to participate in our democracy.”
HB 406 is slightly different from BIPA in that the bill removes a six-ballot restriction that was contained in BIPA. According to the ACLU of Montana, the six-ballot restriction was never a linchpin of the rulings holding that BIPA is unconstitutional.
“It's troubling to see lawmakers push for a bill that would make it harder for Indigenous people living on rural reservations to vote, especially when they know it is unconstitutional and will be challenged in court, costing taxpayers yet again,” said Forstag.
The Plaintiffs in the BIPA challenge are seeking tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and costs.
The bill is in front of the House Judiciary committee on Tuesday morning, where it will be heard alongside 15 other bills. Bills on the subject of voting and elections are typically heard by the State Administration Committee, which currently has far fewer bills under consideration.
“The House is ramming through harmful and unconstitutional legislation at an unprecedented rate,” said Forstag. “This pace, and lack of research and important debate, simply doesn’t serve Montanans.”