Later this month, parties will begin filing briefs in a federal lawsuit where the outcome could have major implications for Indian voters in Montana and the West. On Feb. 20, an appellate court ruled that a lawsuit brought by a group of Indian plaintiffs naming Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and county elections officials in Blaine, Rosebud, and Big Horn Counties as defendants, could go forward. The court denied McCulloch’s request to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction, and now the opening briefs in the case are due March 19. At the heart of the lawsuit is whether McCulloch and county elections officials violated portions of the federal Voting Rights Act that “prohibit voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups.” The plaintiffs argue their rights to equal access to voting were violated when McCulloch and county elections officials refused to set up satellite voting offices on remote Indian reservations in advance of the November 2012 presidential election.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the ACLU of Montana and the national ACLU Voting Rights Project have all filed documents supporting the plaintiffs’ claims that tribal members living on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations are at a voting disadvantage compared to white voters in Rosebud, Blaine and Big Horn Counties.
The plaintiffs argued that the only late registration and early voting options available to them between the close of regular voting registration and Election Day is at county courthouses in the white population centers.
In some cases, those courthouses are more than 100 miles round trip from where most tribal members live, making it difficult for many impoverished Indians to register late and vote after the regular registration deadline.