Copy of Feb 2024 4

Copy of Feb 2024 4

Western Native Voice Celebrates Landmark Victory in Voting Rights Lawsuit

In a historic decision, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of a coalition of Native American organizations and tribes, affirming that two state laws impeding Native American participation in the electoral process violate the fundamental right to vote under the Montana Constitution. The case, Western Native Voice et al. v. Jacobsen et al., was consolidated with a challenge brought by the Montana Democratic Party and various youth voting organizations.

The laws in question, HB 176 and HB 530, aimed to restrict Election Day registration and prohibit paid third-party ballot assistance, respectively. Native American voters, particularly those living on reservations, rely heavily on both Election Day registration and ballot assistance to exercise their right to vote in Montana. The Montana Supreme Court’s ruling recognized that these laws disproportionately burdened Native American voters, citing the challenges they face in accessing polling places and mailing absentee ballots.

The decision upholds a September 2022 ruling from the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, which permanently enjoined both HB 176 and HB 530 as unconstitutional. Plaintiffs in the case, including Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, and several tribes, were represented by the Native American Rights Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic.

Western Native Voice Executive Director Ronnie Jo Horse expressed profound satisfaction with the court’s decision, stating, “Today’s landmark ruling by the Montana Supreme Court stands as a testament to justice prevailing in defense of the rights of Montanans, especially those of Native American communities. By striking down laws that impede Native American participation in our electoral process, the court reinforces the principle of equitable access to voting services and the protection of the rights for all voters, especially those residing on reservations where voting barriers are much higher.”

The decision represents a significant victory for voting rights advocates and Indigenous communities in Montana. As NARF Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León noted, “Today’s decision is a resounding win for tribes in Montana who have only ever asked for a fair opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Native voices deserve to be heard, and this decision helps ensure that happens.”

Alex Rate, deputy director of the ACLU of Montana, echoed these sentiments, stating, “This decision affirms one of our most cherished fundamental rights — the right to vote – which is particularly important to Indigenous voters who already face multiple barriers to the ballot box.”

The ruling underscores the importance of protecting and expanding access to the ballot for all citizens, reaffirming the principle that every voice matters in the democratic process. As Western Native Voice and its allies celebrate this milestone victory, they remain committed to defending voting rights and advocating for equitable participation in the electoral process for all Montanans.