Montana has a long and troubled history of denying Native Americans the right to vote, trying to limit their ability to vote and diminishing their votes' impact.
For many years these efforts were deliberate, premeditated and obvious.
Today's problems are more subtle, but they still have the effect of diluting the Native American vote and violate the law.
Take the disadvantages Native Americans in three rural Montana face when it comes to late registration and in-person voting.
Theoretically every Montanan has the right and ability to register to vote and to cast a ballot up to and through Election Day. They simply have to go to their county courthouse to do so. And that's where it gets sticky.
These county courthouses are in white population centers, not on Indian reservations. For some Native American voters, traveling to these locations is simply too expensive and takes too much time. Though not a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise Indian voters, this system has the practical effect of doing just that. And that is illegal.
That's why tribal members from the Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations are suing to make Blaine, Big Horn and Rosebud counties establish satellite registration and voting sites on their reservations. They are in court this week. The ACLU of Montana is supporting these tribal members' efforts. We're seeking to be allowed to submit a legal brief supporting the tribal members' claims.
A quick look at the situation tribal members living on these reservations face in these communities shows just how much their right to vote is being damaged. Some would have to travel more than 100 miles round-trip to register and cast their votes while white people living in the county seats don't have that barrier.
This dilution of the American Indian vote violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.
“The administrative convenience, asserted as a justification for having late registration and early voting only at the courthouses in these counties, does not justify denying Indians the equal opportunity to register and vote,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s National Voting Rights Project. “We support the plaintiffs’ lawsuit seeking immediate implementation of satellite registration and voting offices on these three reservations.”
One of the factors that must be considered under the Voting Rights Act is the history of efforts to deny minority populations the right and ability to vote. Montana and these counties have a history of discriminating against Indian voters, including officially denying them the vote in the past and creating representational district boundaries that deliberately diluted their voting strength and spurred federal cases that resulted in Indian victories and new boundaries.
“In 1982, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to make it clear that minorities don’t have to prove purposeful discrimination,” said ACLU of Montana Legal Director Jon Ellingson. “They simply have to prove that as a result of the challenged practice – in this case having late registration and early voting only at county seats – they do not have an equal opportunity to participate in elections and elect representatives of their choice up to and through Election Day. That is clearly the case for tribal members on these three reservations. Satellite registration and in-person absentee voting locations on the reservations are required.”