HELENA, Mont. — The Montana House narrowly advanced a bill Monday that seeks to make it easier for Native Americans to vote, even as Republican lawmakers are pushing election restrictions.
The bill aims to reduce travel time for tribal citizens to access voting services by requiring at least one satellite elections office to be available on each reservation in the state – with the same services as county elections offices – at least 30 days before election day.
The measure was advanced with a preliminary vote in a 53-47 split, with several Republicans joining Democrats in voting in favor of the measure. The House is expected to vote on the bill for a third and final time this week.
“I bring this legislation on behalf of the 14,000 soldiers -- Native American soldiers -- who went to war on behalf of the United States when they were not citizens,” said bill sponsor Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, a Democrat of Crow Agency. Native Americans gained citizenship in 1924.
Opponents of the measure said it wouldn’t allow enough state oversight over the satellite election offices, which could be placed on federal land, outside the jurisdiction of county election officials.
“There’s no accountability to making sure that these offices can be inspected,” said Republican Rep. Derek Skees.
But supporters of the measure said it cements in state law practices that are already in place, following a 2014 settlement in a voting rights lawsuit and guidance issued by the secretary of state’s office for counties and tribes to comply with the settlement.
“This bill isn’t doing anything that we weren’t doing in the first place. We’re just putting in code,” said Republican Rep. Geraldine Custer.
The House advanced the measure even as Republican lawmakers are advancing several bills that critics say would make it more difficult for Native American communities to vote.
Those include a bill that has cleared both the Senate and House that would eliminate same-day voter registration in the state. The measure is on the way to the governor for consideration.
Another bill already passed by the House would place restrictions on organizations that collect absentee ballots.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.