HELENA, Montana — Montana legislators rejected a bill this week that would have made it easier for Native communities to vote.
House Bill 613 would have required satellite election offices to be available on each Montana reservation at least 30 days before election day. That would have cut down on the travel time for tribal citizens to access voting services.
The bill also would have directed county officials to accept tribal IDs.
Supporters say HB 613 would have codified what the state is already doing to comply with guidance from the secretary of state following a 2014 settlement in a voting rights lawsuit.
HB 613 had made it through earlier votes with a handful of Republicans joining Democrats to vote in its favor. With four Republicans and one Democrat changing their votes since a second reading on Monday, the bill failed 51 to 48 in the third and final reading on Wednesday.
Some legislators voted against HB 613 due to concerns about administration workloads on election day and security.
“I think it’s a really serious issue that could be looked at over the interim to make it better,” Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a Browning Democrat who helped lead the bipartisan working group that developed the compromise legislation, told the Montana State News Bureau. “We just need to pick up the pieces and keep building on that legislation, and maybe build a better one next session.”
The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency, said the original bill was scaled back to reduce potential costs to the counties involved.
Andy Werk Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, telephoned into one of the final work sessions to oppose the bill, saying it offered his tribe less than what they were guaranteed under the 2014 court settlement.
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from Box Elder, switched to a “no” vote on Wednesday, saying tribal leadership in his district opposed the amendments.
Republican Rep. Wendy McKamey of Ulm, chair of the committee that crafted the compromise bill, was frustrated with Wednesday’s vote.
“I don’t know how they could possibly vote against this, I don’t,” she said. “Because it requires accountability and it requires cooperation.”
HB 613 is one of several Montana bills Republicans have moved forward over criticisms that they create barriers for Native American and other voters. Republicans control both houses of the Montana legislature, and the governor’s seat.
The Montana legislature earlier passed House Bill 176, which would eliminate same-day voter registration.
Keaton Sunchild, Chippewa-Cree, is political director for Western Native Voices in Montana, a nonpartisan advocate for increased Native American self-determination and voter participation.
“Today …Western Native Voices, and three tribal governments along with 15 other organizations from across the state are now calling on Gov. Greg Gianforte to veto House Bill 176 and prevent it from becoming law,” Sunchild said in a Thursday news conference.
At Thursday’s news conference, Montana Women Vote Program Director Ella Smith said, “We have assisted voters who made a plan to vote, took the time off work, only to find out that they needed to update their voter registration in order to vote that day. And that would be their only opportunity.” She noted some isolated, older voters lack access to reliable transportation.
Smith said doing away with same-day voter registration “will systematically disenfranchise low-income voters, voters of color, especially Indigenous voters, and voters living with disabilities.”
Legislative Program Manager Sam Forstag with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana said of the voter registration bill, “quite frankly, I don't think there are any bills that are quite so clearly contrary to the will of Montana voters.”
He said seven years ago, in a ballot referendum, “an overwhelming majority of Montanans rejected an effort to get rid of same day voter registration by a margin of 57 to 43 percent, with well over 80 out of 100 legislative districts voting not to do away with same-day registration.”
Plus, he said, “we have seen absolutely zero proof that [same-day registration] does anything to compromise the security of our elections here in Montana.”
Another bill already passed by the House would place restrictions on organizations that collect absentee ballots.
Republicans in dozens of states are changing state laws to restrict voting access, according to AP reporting.
Four Directions, a Native voting rights advocacy organization, and Global Indigenous Council, which seeks to unite Indigenous communities, is launching an educational campaign in Arizona.
The two groups announced Thursday the placement of two billboards in the Phoenix area with the message: “You took away our land. You took away our children. Now you’re taking our vote?”
In Nevada, Democrats make up the majority in the Nevada Legislature and want to make the state’s universal mail-in ballot policy permanent.
Elected leaders there are proposing a bill that would direct election officials to send all active voters mail-in ballots in each election, arguing that making voting more convenient and accessible strengthens a foundational component of democracy. Nevada was one of four states to adopt emergency measures to mail all active voters ballots amid the pandemic,
The bill is scheduled to receive its first committee hearing on Thursday, according to the AP.
Indian Country Today National Correspondent Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, contributed to this story.
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