The seven Indian reservations that intersect with Montana’s massive counties face significant problems, including poverty, domestic violence, and obstacles to education. Native electoral representation, a tool essential for fixing these issues, is threatened by the thinly populated, hundred-mile distances between remote towns that stretch on bad roads through wild terrain. Distance motivated members of three tribes to file suit in U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, in 2012. In their complaint, rural plaintiffs from the Fort Belknap, Crow, and Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservations alleged that three counties’ failure to create satellite offices allowing late registration and in-person absentee voting closer to Native population centers was unlawful discrimination under § 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Without satellite offices, plaintiffs argued, voting tribal members were forced to travel hundreds of miles round trip to the county seat, which constituted effective denial of the right to vote. Plaintiffs filed twenty-seven days before the 2012 general election, and requested a preliminary injunction requiring the counties to open satellite offices.
The district court denied the injunction, noting that the Wandering Medicine plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on their § 2 claim. Judge Richard Cebull stated that “§ 2 plaintiffs [had] to prove both unequal access and an inability to elect representatives of their choice,” and that because Montana’s tribal members had experienced recent success in electing candidates in state and local elections, § 2 relief was unlikely.
The plaintiffs appealed the denial. They argued that the district court applied the wrong standard to the § 2 claim. The plaintiffs explained their case was about vote denial, not vote dilution, and that the district judge erroneously applied standards from vote dilution precedent. Inability to elect representatives, they argued, is not necessary for successful vote denial claims under § 2. The United States, filing as amici, echoed the plaintiff’s argument: “The harm from an electoral practice that denies or abridges the equal opportunity to cast a ballot is the loss of the franchise itself, not the dilution of the votes cast in an election. Thus, even in situations where minority-preferred candidates are elected, the presence of electoral practices that deny or abridge the franchise for members of a protected class may still violate Section 2.”