Montana law allegedly restricting Native American voting rights struck downDeanna Buckles
In a victory for tribes in Montana, the Yellowstone County District Court permanently struck down a law that plaintiffs argued would restrict Native Americans’ voting rights.
Western Native Voice v. Stapleton challenged Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton on the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), which limits who can collect and convey a ballot belonging to another person.
Staff Attorney at the Native American Rights Fund Natalie Landreth said Friday’s ruling means “that this election, Indian people in Montana can get the help they so sorely need to have their ballots counted.”
The court ruled BIPA is unconstitutional, as it violates the constitutional rights to vote, to free speech and to due process of law.
BIPA supporters in the Legislature argue these restrictions would reduce the risk of voters giving their ballots to strangers who could change them or throw them away, according to The Associated Press.
But the plaintiffs argued because many tribal communities are geographically isolated and have limited access to postal service and transportation, residents of these communities often work with voting organizations to collect and transport ballots to election offices that would otherwise be inaccessible. BIPA would limit this effort, therefore disenfranchising Indigenous communities, plaintiffs said.
Jacqueline De León, staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said the ruling is “one step forward in the fight to protect our vote and our voices.”
“Native American voters living on reservations in Montana are tired of being under-served and systemically discriminated against by the state. Today’s decision removes one unnecessary obstacle for rural Montana voters and helps every voice be heard in our state and federal elections,” she said in a statement.
Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice, said the ruling enables Indigenous voters to better participate in democracy.
“Ensuring that all voters have access to the polls is a foundational component to our democracy, and we are pleased that our organizers can continue their get-out-the-vote and ballot collection efforts on every reservation in Montana,” she said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and Native American Rights Fund filed the lawsuit in March on behalf of voting organizations Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote and the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, Crow Nation and Fort Belknap Indian Community.
State Sen. Albert Olszewski, R-Kalispell introduced BIPA in 2017, which passed in Legislative Referendum in 2018 and was approved by 64% of Montana voters, according to AP.