The Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana is considering taking legal action against Blaine County and the Secretary of State of Montana for failing to provide equal access to the right to vote for tribal members, according to the tribe’s president.
Fort Belknap Indian Community President Mark Azure said the tribe has retained the services of Timothy Purdon and Brendan Johnson of Robins Kaplan – the former attorneys general of North Dakota and South Dakota, respectively – and Bryan Sells, who was previously working in civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice before starting his own law practice.
“We have made multiple requests of Blaine County officials for equal access to in-person late registration and absentee balloting on the Fort Belknap Reservation going back to August 2014,” Azure said.
Azure said Blaine County officials have refused to establish a satellite office on the reservation, which would provide equal access for Election Day registration, late registration and absentee balloting. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch has also not used her authority to establish equal access, according to Azure.
In a statement, Secretary of State McCulloch said she issued a directive in October of last year to eight counties with American Indian reservations and spoke with President Azure before the directive was sent out. “Eight counties have committed to opening nine satellite offices on American Indian reservations, after working with tribal governments on the logistics of those offices,” she said in the statement. “Blaine County has made a written offer to open a satellite office on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and we are confident that they can come to an agreement to serve American Indian voters.”
A copy of the directive states the satellite offices must provide in-person absentee voting and late registration services.
Blaine County election officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Approximately 4,600 people of voting age live in Blaine County, and 2,100 of those are Native American, with the vast majority living on the reservation.
“Our tribal members live much further away from the existing county election office and have much less economic resources to bridge this gap,” the tribal president said.
Though the attorneys have been retained for possible litigation, Sells said they ultimately hope that is the last resort. He said they hope the issue can be resolved quickly and amicably on a government-to-government basis.
“For too many Native Americans living in Indian country, casting a ballot takes a significant amount of time and effort,” Sells said. “Polling places and early voting sites are often located hours from home and it can be difficult to get absentee ballots.”
Additionally, tribal identification cards are sometimes not recognized and honored as a valid form of voter identification. “These unfair barriers discourage Native Americans from making their voices heard on Election Day,” he added.
But Native Americans play an important role in political races across the country, Johnson noted.
“Native Americans are a growing political force in this country and have proven to be the deciding factor in close political races,” he said. “Of course, sometimes the most important political races for Native Americans are actually local races for offices, like the country commission, and in these races the importance of the Native American vote is particularly apparent.”
Across the United States, there are ongoing challenges over early voting and voter ID laws in North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah, according to Sells. He noted that the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe successfully challenged the closure of a reservation polling place. The Native American Voting Rights Act of 2015 – which Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is the chief sponsor for – would provide a wide range of protections for Native American voters, Sells said, but that piece of legislation along with a similar one proposed by Attorney General Loretta Lynch have stalled in the current Congress.
“There is a long history of Native Americans being denied the right to vote or being denied equal access to vote across this country,” Johnson said. “This is not acceptable, and we are seeing more tribes demand that constitutional rights of their members to vote be protected.”
Though some tribes are able to work with local and state government to remedy the situations, Johnson said others are not able to. “Our job is to use the court system to try and force these governments to take action when they refuse to act on their own,” he said.