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In These Times: Montana tribal members fight for voting rights

Filed Under: Law | National | Politics
More on: crow, fort belknap, montana, northern cheyenne, voting rights, wandering medicine

Plaintiffs and supporters in Wandering Medicine voting rights case. Photo by Joseph Zummo / Reporting from Indian Country

In These Times reports on Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, an Indian voting rights case in Montana:
It was mid-April, and Montana was gearing up for this year’s primary election. Voting would get underway in Big Sky Country on May 5, with a month of advance voting by absentee ballot—by mail or by delivering a ballot to the county courthouse—leading up to Primary Day on June 3. If people hadn’t registered, they could head to the courthouse to sign up.

But for Ed “Buster” Moore, who lives on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, it wasn’t so simple. To cast a ballot during the absentee-voting period, he would have to make the 126-mile round trip to the Blaine County Courthouse in Chinook. That’s about $21 worth of gas, not to mention the income that Moore, an artisan, would lose by taking a half day off from his work making hand drums, rawhide bags and other items that he sells in the community and on the Internet. A diabetic, he’d have to buy lunch on the road. Those expenses add up.

If he had to vote today? “I couldn’t afford it,” Moore says. For tribal members who are unemployed or receiving assistance, voting would be impossible, he says. “It’s sheer economics.”

Moore’s situation isn’t unusual. Though measures that curtail minorities’ voting rights, such as stringent ID requirements and limited voting time, have made headlines in recent years, the challenges Native Americans face when they go to the polls have never been on the national radar. In the second decade of the 21st century, nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices, American Indians are still working to obtain equal voting rights.

Montanans can register to vote during the month preceding elections—but there’s a catch. The courthouses where they register are in largely white-inhabited county seats, not on reservations. In the nation’s fourth-largest state—at 147,040 square miles, bigger than Germany—that can mean daylong trips for people like Moore from isolated reservations.

And that’s just registration. The month-long voting period is supposed to make casting a ballot easier, and hundreds of thousands of Montanans take advantage of it. In 2012, 42.5 percent of voters either mailed in an absentee ballot or voted in person during the month leading up to Primary Day, according to state election results. In-person voting, however, is only allowed at those same county courthouses, a long way from reservations. And voting by mail poses its own difficulties, thanks to unreliable postal service on reservations. For Native people, casting a ballot in Montana can be a multi-day event.

Get the Story:
The Missing Native Vote (In These Times 6/10)

Related Stories:
Oliver Semans: Native people deserve equal access to voting box (2/19)
Al Jazeera: 9th Circuit takes up Indian voting rights lawsuit (10/07)
Indian voting rights lawsuit carries impact in Senate election (7/16)

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