BILLINGS — A federal judge on Tuesday denied an emergency order sought by a group of American Indians who wanted to force officials to provide satellite voting on Montana reservations, effectively putting off resolution of the issue until after Election Day.
Fifteen Indians from the remote Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations argued in a lawsuit filed earlier this month that the long distances they must drive for early voting and late registration leaves them disadvantaged compared to white voters.
But U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull said regardless of whether voting discrimination exists, the plaintiffs did not show they were unable to vote for the candidates of their choice.
"I'm not arguing that the opportunity is equal for Indian persons as it is to non-Indians," Cebull said. "Because of poverty, because of the lack of vehicles and that sort of thing, it's probably not equal. However, you have to prove ... that they can't elect candidates of their choice."
Plaintiffs' attorney Steven Sandven said there was too little time before the election to appeal Cebull's ruling on the injunction request. But the lawsuit alleging discrimination by county and state officials will continue, he said.
"Now we're in it for the long haul," Sandven said.
The lawsuit targets officials from Rosebud, Blaine and Bighorn counties and the Montana Secretary of State's Office.
Plaintiff and Fort Belknap tribal council member Edward Moore, Jr. said he and his neighbors in the town of Hayes have to travel more than 120 miles roundtrip to vote early in person at the county courthouse in Chinook. That costs money for gas and requires time off from work — hurdles that are magnified in a community with high poverty levels and where many don't have vehicles.
"It's a big burden," Moore said, adding that many people "may not vote at all" as a result.
Montanans can vote early absentee ballots by mail or by delivering ballots in person to county offices. Late registration begins at county offices a month before Election Day. Voting on Nov. 6 was not at issue in the case.
U.S. Department of Justice attorneys submitted court filings in support of the plaintiffs. Those included a deposition from a University of Wyoming geography professor who said American Indians from the reservations must drive at least twice as far than whites to vote before Election Day.
American Indians also suffer from much higher rates of poverty, further inhibiting their ability to reach county courthouses that are the only place in the three counties to vote early or register late.
"The practical reality is that Indian voters in Big Horn, Blaine and Rosebud counties do not have the same opportunity as white voters," Department of Justice attorneys wrote in their filings.
But during a two-day hearing before Cebull, there was no testimony from any American Indian who had been prevented from voting. Sara Frankenstein, the attorney for the counties, used testimony from Rosebud County Clerk and Recorder Geraldine Custer and other officials to show that Indians have used the current voting process to elect other Indians.
County officials said there was neither enough time nor workers to set up and staff satellite offices before Nov. 6.
Other county officials pointed to voter advocacy work done on reservations by the group Western Native Voice as an example of efforts under way to increase American Indian voting.
An organizer from the group, Jessie James Hawley, said the lawsuit threatens to sour relations between tribes and their county officials over an issue that she's already working to address.
State and county officials have said that given more time, they might have been able to set up the satellite offices. Two Rosebud County commissioners, Douglas Martens and Robert E. Lee, voted last month to deny the request. However, they said they would continue discussions on the issue.
The county's third commissioner, Danny Sioux, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, was in favor of setting up a satellite voting office in Lame Deer but was outnumbered when it came up for a vote.
Tom Rodgers is an enrolled Blackfeet member who previously tried to get the Secretary of State's office to help set up the office on the reservation. He said the state's refusal — coupled with the resistance from county officials — shows the history of racial discrimination against American Indians is repeating itself in Montana.
"It's a more subtle, soft discrimination," he said. If we did not push for this, it would not have happened," said Rodgers, a lobbyist from the Washington, D.C. area who said he does pro-bono work for tribes.