On February 20, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which includes the nine westernmost states, said it would hear the appeal of a Montana voting-rights lawsuit. The appeal arose when a Montana federal judge, Richard Cebull, denied a 2012 request from Native voters for a preliminary injunction ordering early-voting/late-registration satellite offices on the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Fort Belknap reservations. The judge made his decision on October 30, 2012, and filed his order on Election Day, November 6. “This lawsuit, filed after months of requests for the satellite offices, could not be more timely,” said Blackfeet tribal member Tom Rodgers, who is working with Four Directions, a voting-rights group. “We see similar issues for tribes nationwide—efforts to impede Native registration, to limit the time for voting and to make it more difficult. All rights in a democracy flow from the right to vote.” For several election cycles, Four Directions has pressed for Native access to early voting, a convenient form of balloting that has increased election participation nationwide.
Rodgers, who was the whistleblower in the Jack Abramoff scandal, called the Montana lawsuit one of many interactions of policy and politics that’ll play out as early as the 2014 midterm elections. “Important Senate races are coming up in Montana, Alaska and South Dakota, where the Native vote can be the decider. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a voting-rights case right now, and there are numerous voting-related bills in Congress and state legislatures, including efforts to remake the Electoral College.”
In a measure of the Montana lawsuit’s prominence, the Coalition of Large Tribes approved a resolution in support of it, tribes nationwide including Lytton Rancheria and the Tule River Indian Tribe have supported it financially, and the United States Department of Justice filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.
In Montana, early voting is called “in-person absentee voting,” while “late registration” is a month-long period leading up to the general election. Currently, reservation residents struggle to find transportation to do both in the distant, non-Native—and according to court documents, often hostile—border towns that make up the county seats.
The Montana suit’s lead plaintiff is Mark Wandering Medicine, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member who must travel 182 miles roundtrip to his county seat; lead defendant is Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who oversees elections. Tribal representatives and Four Directions staffers contacted McCulloch in May 2012 about setting up satellite stations, only to be rebuffed for months. This prompted Four Directions consultant Bret Healy to charge that McCulloch had purposely “run out the clock” on the opportunity to set up the offices. Terri L. McCoy, McCulloch’s communications director, said she could not comment on an ongoing lawsuit.