Judge Blocks Montana Ballot-Collection Law Challenged by Native American Tribes

Montana State Capitol in Helena. (Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

(CN) — A Montana judge Tuesday blocked a state law that restricts who can collect ballots, finding it likely violates Native Americans’ right to vote. 

In a state where over 73% of voters cast ballots by mail, the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, enacted by Montana’s 2017 Legislature, restricts who can collect ballots and dictates that caregivers, family members and others can collect no more than six ballots per election. 

Several Native American tribes and advocacy groups claim in their suit challenging the law that Native Americans in Montana’s seven reservations are particularly isolated, and tribal members often must rely on someone else to collect or transport their ballots to the post office.

The law also mandates that only household members, personal friends, postal workers, election officials or caregivers can carry a tribal member’s ballot to be mailed, and prohibited third-party ballot-collection organizations from helping tribal members cast their mail-in ballots. 

Due to social restrictions from Covid-19, Montana’s 2020 primary election was conducted entirely by mail — the first time the state had done an all-mail ballot. 

“Without being able to rely on the collection and conveyance of their ballot, many Native Americans living on rural reservations will be effectively unable to vote,” the lawsuit said.

The suit also claims that the law infringes on plaintiffs’ freedom of speech, by restricting “core political speech and expressive conduct in communicating their belief in the importance of civic engagement and voter participation in the Native American community.”

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Jessica Fehr on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the law. 

“The Court finds that BIPA serves no legitimate purpose; it fails to enhance the security of absentee voting; it does not make absentee voting easier or more effective; it does not reduce the cost of conducting elections and it does not increase voter turnout,” Fehr wrote in her 11-page ruling.

Fehr added that the state “failed to demonstrate through any evidence the existence of any compelling state interest that would warrant the interference of the right to vote created by BIPA.” 

“If a preliminary injunction were not granted, BIPA would cause irreparable harm to Montana voters by preventing absentee ballot voters from voting with the assistance of ballot collection organizations,” she said.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Native American Rights Fund on behalf of Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote — two organizations focused on increasing civic participation in the Native American community. Other plaintiffs are the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, the Blackfeet Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Crow Tribe, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community. 

“For our democracy to function, Indigenous people living on rural reservations must have access to the fundamental right to vote. BIPA, however, was contributing instead to the disenfranchisement that Indigenous people have experienced since the beginning of colonization,” ACLU legal fellow Lillian Alvernaz said.

Natalie Landreth, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said the Ballot Interference Prevention Act “is totally unnecessary, as there never was evidence that ballot collection caused any problems in the past.”

The Montana Secretary of State’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

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