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Blackfeet Voters Hampered by Intimidation, Lack of Ballots

Voting on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana was marred by an anthrax scare and a lack of ballots for Native American voters.

In the late afternoon of an Election Day marred by voter intimidation and what appeared to be a faked anthrax attack on the Blackfeet tribal hall in Browning, Montana—and after a bruising several-month but ultimately successful fight for on-reservation early voting—ballots ran out on the tribe’s reservation in Glacier County. Some Blackfeet voters had long waits, and others may not have voted at all.

Party politics seems to have played a role. A look at 2012 electoral results reveals that counties dominated by reservations—including Blaine, Big Horn, Glacier and Roosevelt—went for U.S. Senate incumbent Jon Tester. This means Montana Indians helped him retain his seat and helped Democrats keep control of the Senate.

For their part, the state’s Republicans appear to have an adversarial relationship with Native voters. In mid-morning in the Browning precinct, an operative of Republican Dennis Rehberg’s now-failed U.S. Senate campaign told voters that possessing palm cards listing candidates endorsed by Montana Native Vote was illegal.

Diane Bird, Blackfeet and a representative of the voting-rights organization who was handing out the cards, said a voter told her he’d “almost gotten thrown in jail,” as a result of having one of the group’s cards. “A lot of people were afraid.”

Said Michael DesRosiers, Blackfeet and Glacier County Commission chairman: “I was personally told by voters that a Rehberg operative had questioned them about their palm cards and if they had IDs. They told me they felt intimidated and were angry.”

Election-protection observers straightened out the situation, including reminding voters they should be sure to take the cards with them after casting ballots. “Then people started asking for the cards,” Bird said.

Neither Rehberg’s campaign headquarters nor his press representative responded to requests for a comment.

Then, at about 2 p.m., a package containing a substance appearing to be anthrax arrived at the tribal hall, causing it and other facilities to be closed for a couple of hours. The incident appeared unrelated to the election. “[It] did not disrupt the election. It was handled by tribal homeland security and law enforcement,” said DesRosiers.

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Toward evening, ballots ran out in Native precincts around Glacier County. “From ten of 5 until about 7 p.m., there were no ballots in Browning, and that’s prime voting time,” said Browning schoolteacher Anne Lunak. Two other election participants confirmed the lack of ballots.

During the two-hour gap in Browning, 20 to 30 voters left, Lunak said. “No one wrote down the names of those who left, so there’s no way to know if they returned to vote. I said, ‘this is wrong, this is not how we run an election.’” Some had come a long distance over difficult roads, she said. “It makes you wonder. If we make voting difficult, does this discourage people from coming back for the next election?”

At 7 p.m., when Jimi Champs, Blackfeet, got to the polling place in predominantly Native North Cut Bank, ballots had run out there, too, she said. “People had been sitting since 6 or 6:30. They were frustrated, but they stayed. The ballots finally arrived at 7:30.”

Two more Native polling places—in East Glacier and a second Browning precinct—ran out of ballots as well, according to Bret Healy, a consultant with voter-rights group Four Directions who was observing the Blackfeet election.

At 8:30 p.m., Terri McCoy, spokesperson for Montana’s top election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, said the Blackfeet voters’ wait had been a matter of minutes. “The ballot issue was resolved extremely quickly, and no one was turned away.”

On Wednesday morning, a staffer in the Glacier County Clerk and Recorders office, which ran the election, said the wait in the Blackfeet precincts could have been caused by lines forming when the ballots ran out, not because it took a long time to deliver them. “People may have waited two hours, but it was because of the backlog,” she said.

“There were no lines,” said Healy. “No one showed up till we put on the radio that ballots had arrived.”

Effect on turnout? Precincts that ran out of ballots had the lowest turnout on the reservation, said Healy.