Amy Beth Hanson
HELENA, Mont. — Emotions ran high Friday as a Montana House committee heard a bill seeking to make it easier for Native Americans to vote.
The bill proposes putting into law and advancing terms of a 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, said Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency, the bill's sponsor.
After the hearing, the bill was amended to add a $5,000 appropriation to give the committee more time to work on it without missing next week's transmittal deadline for non-appropriations bills.
The bill would require at least two satellite elections offices on each reservation — with the same services as county elections offices — beginning when mail ballots are sent and until polls close on Election Day for every state and federal election.
A tribal photo ID would not be required to include a residential address or an expiration date to be considered valid under the bill. Another bill moving through the Legislature would add the word “valid” before tribal ID as one that can be used to register or vote. Under that bill, a tribal photo ID that had expired would not be valid for voting.
Stewart Peregoy's bill also authorizes voters to use a nontraditional addresses as long as the voter provides enough information to be assigned to a precinct. Many rural tribal residents do not have physical addresses, Stewart Peregoy said, noting that one year her voter registration contained something similar to GPS information.
Because of the number of bills the committee needed to hear Friday due to the pending transmittal deadline, House State Administration Chair Rep. Wendy McKamey of Ulm limited testimony to one minute.
Supporters — including tribal leaders, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote — testified the bill would help address barriers to voting that exist for people living on tribal lands, in part by requiring ballot drop boxes in towns that are more than 10 miles from a satellite election office.
Dana Corson, director of elections and voter services at the secretary of state's office, testified against the bill. He questioned whether providing “special unique access” for tribal members, but not for others who live in rural areas, might be a problem.
“You should examine the bill carefully to ensure all voters are given the same access,” he said.
Joan Duffield, the Rosebud County clerk and recorder, said she believed her county was doing a good job on reservations, including meeting settlement requirements that they open satellite offices on reservations at least two days a week. But others told stories of tribal members driving to satellite offices on some reservations and finding them closed or being denied a replacement ballot.
Democratic Rep. Marvin Weatherwax of Browning was upset about the brief amount of time supporters were given to testify.
“This action ... that we've seen this morning, with the one minute time limit on that, exhibits everything that's gone on since 1924,” when Native Americas were declared citizens of the United States, Weatherwax said. “And I sure would appreciate a little more respect than that.”
McKamey, at times emotional, said she was “not trying to dishonor anyone here,” and said the decision was strictly a matter of time management because bills had to be acted on in the committee on Friday in order to meet the transmittal deadline.
Republican Rep. Julie Dooling of Helena said she's seen bills in her two sessions in the legislature that attempt to improve the election process, but that Native Americans have testified against those bills.
“I wish our ... Secretary of State's Office would work more closely with the Indian caucus to make sure their vote is counted. The more I learn about life on the reservation, and the struggles that they have to get to vote — we've got to work with them," Dooling said, near tears. "Their vote matters. Their voice matters. This bill, it's a great step and I wish it hadn't come so late in this session because it frustrates me some more. And this needs to become a priority.”
McKamey heard several ways to extend the deadline to work on the bill and it was amended to add an appropriation. She said she was relieved to have a way to move it forward.