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Judge blocks Montana from enforcing absentee ballot law

'For our democracy to function, Indigenous people living on rural reservations must have access to the fundamental right to vote'

Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — A Montana judge issued a ruling Tuesday that blocks the state from enforcing a voter-approved law that restricts the collection of absentee ballots during elections.

Tuesday's ruling from District Judge Jessica Fehr came after the Billings-based judge temporarily halted the Ballot Interference Protection Act two weeks before the June primary election. 

The law passed by voter referendum in 2018 limits one person to turning in a maximum of six absentee ballots. 

Fehr wrote the law would "significantly suppress vote turnout by disproportionately harming rural communities." She said Native Americans in rural tribes across the seven Indian reservation located in Montana would be particularly harmed.

The ACLU, tribes and advocacy groups sued in March to block it, arguing the law disproportionately harms American Indians who live in rural areas and rely on others to collect and convey their ballots to elections offices or post offices.

Rural Native Americans may not have home mail service, They also have difficulty getting to polling sites because of limited hours, unreliable roads, lack of access to a vehicle and limited money to buy gas, the complaint argued. 

“The Ballot Interference Prevention Act makes it hard for many Montanans to vote. It also is totally unnecessary, as there never was evidence that ballot collection caused any problems in the past,” said Natalie Landreth, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. “The Tribes are thankful that the court saw all this and has stopped enforcement of it.”

Lillian Alvernaz, Indigenous legal fellow at ACLU of Montana, said, “This ruling is good news. For our democracy to function, Indigenous people living on rural reservations must have access to the fundamental right to vote. BIPA, however, was contributing instead to the disenfranchisement that Indigenous people have experienced since the beginning of colonization.”

The referendum was approved by 64 percent of voter in 2018. 

Supporters argued the law doesn't harm tribal members. Its initial intent was to give citizens the legal backing to call law enforcement if someone was badgering them for their ballot, said state Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, who sponsored the legislation

Election administrators in three counties told a state legislative committee in February that the law was frustrating electors, suppressing votes and is easily bypassed because people could collect absentee ballots and mail them rather than drop them off.

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Indian Country Today contributed to this report.