HELENA, Mont. — A Montana House committee unanimously endorsed a bill Friday aimed at making it easier for Native Americans to vote.
The bill would require counties to have at least one satellite or alternative election office on reservations in the 30 days before an election and for the counties and tribes to agree, in writing, on the location and hours of operation.
The bill puts into law the terms of a 2014 settlement in a voting rights lawsuit that required three counties to open satellite voting offices on reservations twice a week before Election Day. It also puts into law guidance issued by the Secretary of State's Office directing other counties with tribal voters to comply with the settlement.
The bill, as introduced last month, sought to require counties to place two satellite or alternative election offices on each reservation and for the sites to be open the same hours and provide the same services as county election offices.
The House State Administration Committee worked on the bill this week and heard from county elections clerks who said they don't have the staff, equipment or funding to provide two elections offices on each reservation along with the county office and staff them full time.
The main issue is the need for $15,000 machines that print sequentially numbered ballots, as required by law. Some counties only have one and have to close the county election office to take the machine and open an election office on a reservation.
Democratic Rep. Tyson Running Wolf of Browning, Montana, said some tribes are concerned that there are no penalties to counties who do not comply with the measure.
“Some counties, it's known that they'll have reasons or excuses not to implement this,” Running Wolf said. “I'm really taking a big leap here saying this is a good start."
The bill, as introduced by Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, also called for ballot drop boxes to be placed in towns that were more than 10 miles from the satellite election offices. The amended bill calls for the tribes and counties to negotiate those locations.
“While we would have hoped to see the original bill passed, we think this is a great first step toward getting equity in the electoral process in Indian Country in Montana,” Keaton Sunchild, the political director for Western Native Voice, said in a statement.
The bill also states that a tribal photo identification does not need a residential address or an expiration date for it to be considered valid for registering or voting. Another bill moving through the legislature had required a valid tribal ID for voting, but that was amended out of the bill.
The legislature's State-Tribal Relations Committee would monitor implementation if the bill becomes law. The bill now moves to the House floor for consideration.