On October 10, members of three Montana tribes—Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Gros Ventre and Assiniboine—filed a voting-rights lawsuit in federal court in Billings. One defendant is Montana’s head election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. The other 13 are commissioners and election officers of Rosebud, Big Horn and Blaine counties, which overlap the three tribes’ reservations, respectively, and handle their non-tribal elections. The tribal members are suing because the officials do not plan to provide the three reservations with satellite offices for early voting, which got underway in Montana on October 9 and runs through election day. The 16 plaintiffs say this violates rights protected by the United States and Montana constitutions and the Voting Rights Act (VRA). All three counties named have lost or settled VRA suits. Today’s failure to provide satellite early voting reinforces a “history of official racial discrimination in voting,” the suit said.
Several counties around the state have minimal satellite offices; most, like the one in Rosebud County, handle local-tax payments and motor-vehicle matters. A few also accept absentee ballots, according to an advisory from the state’s attorney general, Steve Bullock. He told the secretary of state on August 17 that in Montana setting up a full-fledged early-voting satellite office, away from the main one in the county seat, is legal and doable—though optional. Rosebud County election official Geraldine Custer said logistics influenced her eventual decision not to set up early voting in her existing ancillary office on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. “I don’t care if they’re white, black or Chinese,” she said. “I just don’t have the staff. It’s not about race. I’m just swamped.” Custer also called the attorney general’s advisory “a suggestion” and “a work-around” and noted that he had not termed it a formal “opinion.”