Amy Beth Hanson
Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — A lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of Native American voting rights organizations and four tribes challenging new laws they say are part of a broader scheme by the Montana Legislature to disenfranchise Native voters.

The Legislature passed a bill to eliminate Election Day voter registration by closing late registration at noon on the Monday before Election Day. It also approved a bill including a provision to prohibit the paid collection of absentee ballots.

Plaintiffs Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote participate in get-out-the-vote efforts on reservations, including collecting absentee ballots and driving people to polls to register and vote on Election Day.

The Native rights organizations along with the Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Fort Belknap Indian Community and Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed the lawsuit in District Court in Billings.

In an emailed statement to Indian Country Today, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said the tribe had no choice but to join the lawsuit and that the new laws make the voting process more difficult for Natives.

“Our Tribes, like all people of Montana, have the right to participate in the state’s political process. These new laws directly threaten our right to have our voices heard. They do nothing but weaken the electoral process by making it harder for Native voters — who already are underserved — to participate,” Fyant said. “So, we really have no option but to join this lawsuit and fight for our freedom to vote. We are doing this for the good of our Tribes and our community, the good of the state, and the good of our shared commitment to a democratic system that includes us all.”

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the state's chief elections officer, is named as the defendant.

"The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a Secretary of State that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures," Jacobsen said.

Jacqueline De León, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which is representing Western Native Vote and Montana Native Voice, said the laws are an unconstitutional attack on the right of Native Americans to vote.

"They're part of a pattern of carefully designed laws that make voting more difficult for some voters than others, which the court has already recognized does not serve the state," she said.

Montana and Arizona are among several states controlled politically by Republicans who are tightening election rules. Democrats say the new rules will disproportionately affect minorities and lower-income voters. Florida, Georgia and Iowa already have enacted voting restrictions, and Texas is debating its own set of tighter rules.

The legal challenge in Montana comes after similar concerns were raised in Arizona over voter restrictions passed by Republicans that they say are designed to strengthen the integrity of elections.

(Related: Navajos say new Arizona restrictions will complicate voting)

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the Arizona changes, which could result in tens of thousands of people being purged from a list of voters who automatically get a ballot by mail, belittle tribes and fail to recognize the unique challenges Native Americans face when casting ballots. That includes driving hours to reach polling places, unreliable mail service and the need for more Native language translators.

Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, right, pictured with President Jonathan Nez in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

In March, President Joe Biden issued an executive order creating a Native American Voting Rights Steering Group. It's tasked with consulting with tribes nationwide to address barriers to voting, among other things

Last year, two judges in Billings, Montana, struck down a voter-passed law that limited people to delivering only six ballots to an elections office and required that person to fill out a form saying whose ballot they had dropped off.

Attorneys argued the law harmed Native Americans who lack adequate mail, transportation and voting services on reservations, all of which make it difficult for them to mail or deliver their own ballots or to vote in person.

"This case and the facts presented at trial turn a spotlight to our fellow citizens that still live below the poverty line with limits to health care, government services, mail services and election offices — those citizens are the Native Americans that reside on reservations within Montana's borders," District Judge Jessica Fehr wrote in September.

Despite that ruling, the Legislature passed a similar bill this year, the lawsuit states, calling it "nothing short of discriminatory."

Supporters argued that eliminating Election Day registration will allow election clerks to focus on voting on Election Day and noted that people can register and vote on the same day in the 30 days prior to an election.

Opponents said it would deny the right to vote to people who might have an error on their registration or those who have moved and not updated their registration. Election Day registration has been in effect in Montana since 2005.

Lawmakers who sought to prohibit paid ballot collection said they did so to improve election security, although voter fraud has not been an issue in Montana.

The Montana Democratic Party filed a lawsuit last month challenging the ballot collection restrictions along with another law that requires additional proof of residency for people using their student identifications to register or vote.

Montana lawmakers appropriated $100,000 to the Secretary of State's Office for election litigation.

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Indian Country Today contributed to this report.