A group of American Indians from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations sued state and county election officials in federal court on Wednesday, seeking equal access to voting through satellite offices.
The lack of satellite election offices on reservations, the plaintiffs allege, forces Indians to drive long distances to vote at the county seat, is discriminatory and denies Indians their voting and civil rights under federal law and the U.S. and Montana constitutions.
A few of the 15 plaintiffs and consultants assisting with the case gathered outside the federal courthouse in Billings on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
Plaintiff Marty Other Bull, a Crow tribal member and registered voter who lives in Crow Agency, votes in person. While he has a greater opportunity to vote at the Big Horn County election office in Hardin, about 15 miles away, Other Bull said many tribal members in Wyola, Lodge Grass and Pryor have to travel farther.
“For us to be traveling to Hardin, it’s a hardship for most of us. This is a good step to work together,” Other Bull said.
The lawsuit seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction ordering state and county elections officers to locate satellite county offices with in-person absentee voting and late voter registration services in Fort Belknap, Lame Deer and Crow Agency for the full 30 days as authorized by Montana law for the 2012 general election and future elections.
The suit names as defendants Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Rosebud, Big Horn and Blaine counties along with the counties’ commissioners, clerks and recorders and election administrators.
Attorney Terryl Matt of Cut Bank is representing the plaintiffs.
A spokeswoman for McCulloch did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Blaine County Commissioner Dolores Plumage said she had not yet seen the suit and had no comment. Commissioners in Big Horn County could not be reached for comment.
Rosebud County Attorney Michael Hayworth said the county had not been served and he could not comment.
The Rosebud County commission, however, adopted a resolution Oct. 2 supporting efforts to increase voting by Northern Cheyenne tribal members and to create an election information office in Lame Deer. The office could be operational "almost immediately" and provide assistance and registration forms to voters, the resolution said.
"Although not precisely as requested, the essence of the voter participation measures requested by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Four Directions are able to be implemented for the November 2012 election," the resolution said.
Four Directions is a South Dakota voting rights group based on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
After reviewing the request for a satellite election office, Rosebud County determined that logistical hurdles could not be cleared in time for the November election, the resolution said.
Tuesday was the deadline for Montana’s regular voter registration and for counties to mail the first round of absentee ballots. Late registration is permitted at county election offices through Election Day on Nov. 6.
Registered voters in Montana’s largest cities, which are mostly non-Indian, may vote early at their local county clerk and recorder’s office starting 30 days before Election Day, the suit said.
“In stark contrast, tribal members of the Fort Belknap, Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations must travel long distances to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” the suit said.
“Allowing a non-Indian majority county to establish in-person absentee locations at county courthouses but denying the same level of voter access to Indian majority communities is evidence of an invidious discrimination by state and county officials,” the suit said.
Five of Montana’s 56 counties have satellite election offices, the suit said.
Four Directions, along with Tom Rodgers, a member of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe and consultant with Carlyle Consulting in Virginia, and tribal representatives asked officials in Blaine, Rosebud and Big Horn counties to open satellite offices. All declined for various reasons, including time, space and staff, the suit said.
In declining the Crow Tribe’s request, Big Horn County Commissioner John Tree on Top, a Crow tribal member, said he was voting to deny it because “white people will get mad,” the suit said.
The counties also declined Four Directions’ offers to help pay for the offices, said O.J. Semans, executive director of the organization.
In May, the group asked McCulloch, the state’s top election official, for help but was told to get a bill introduced at the next Legislative session, Rodgers said.
McCulloch sent an election advisory to all county clerk and recorder offices notifying them of the requirements for establishing satellite offices, but the advisory said satellite offices were discretionary, Rodgers said.
The state’s “mantra” was mail-in voting, Rodgers said. But absentee voting is “subject to incredible fraud,” he said.
Montana’s reservations are poverty stricken, making it difficult for Indians to exercise their voting rights, Rodgers said. A voter on a reservation may be a single mother with a half a tank of gas in her car, he said.
“Distance plus extreme poverty equals unequal access by definition. I can’t emphasize that enough. These people don’t have $20 in their pocket,” he said.
Extreme poverty makes it harder for an Indian on a reservation to vote than, for example, a resident of Custer, a small nonreservation town about 45 miles from Yellowstone County’s election office in Billings, Rogers said.
“Members of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation drive a startling 113.8 miles round trip to Forsyth to exercise their constitutional right to vote. In taking its action, the Rosebud County Commission failed to take into consideration the Northern Cheyenne's poverty," the suit said.