State Watch

Native American tribes file lawsuit to challenge Montana voter registration law

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Voting rights organizations filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of Native Americans in Montana over the state’s new Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), which they argue restricts Native Americans from casting ballots.

The majority of Montanans cast their ballots through mail, but because Native American reservations in the state are geographically isolated and lack postal service, those who live there rely on voting organizations to collect and transport ballots to election offices that would otherwise be inaccessible, the plaintiffs said. BIPA imposes new restrictions on who can collect ballots and how many ballots can be collected, reducing what used to be 80 ballots to only six. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, argue the law prevents indigenous people from voting.

“We are urging the court to immediately block this law that would disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters who live on rural reservations,” Alora Thomas-Lundborg, ACLU staff attorney, said in a statement. “This case is about making sure every eligible voter who wants to vote can actually do so.” 

The plaintiffs also argued that BIPA is in many ways incompatible with the social structures of Native American life, such as the definition of “family member,” which to indigenous people can extend past blood-relation.

“BIPA ignores the everyday realities that face Native American communities,” said Jacqueline De León of the Native American Rights Fund. “It is not reasonable to expect voters to drive an hour to drop off their ballot, so collecting ballots in reservation communities just makes sense. Criminalizing this behavior is unfair to Native American voters and does nothing to solve the real problem of mail not being picked up and delivered to Native homes.”

Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton (R) told the Great Falls Tribune that BIPA was passed to prevent voter fraud and was “overwhelmingly” embraced by voters, including indigenous people. 

“[BIPA] is supported overwhelmingly by Montanans, including the counties in Indian Country,” Stapleton said. “It’s always dicey when plaintiffs try to overturn the will of the people.”

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