Montana Tribes Sue Over State Restrictions on Ballot Collecting

(CN) – Five Native American tribes and a pair of advocacy groups sued Montana officials Thursday over a 2018 law they say restricts their right to vote.

Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote and the tribes say participating in elections has often been a challenge for those living in rural areas with limited access to mail services or transportation, and the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act compounds the problems.

Montana State Capitol in Helena. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

One of the core challenges to the law deals with ballot-collector regulations. With so many Native Americans casting their ballots by mail and working with local get-out-the-vote organizations, previous ballot collectors could pick up and deliver around 85 ballots per collector to elections officials. The 2018 law limits collections to just six per ballot collector.

The law also imposes a potential $500 fine for those who bring ballots to the post office for relatives or neighbors, a measure the group claims will discourage and disenfranchise Native American voters.

Jacqueline De León of the Native American Rights Fund says that these provisions show that the law has a clear lack of understanding and recognition for the voting realities Native Americans face.

“BIPA ignores the everyday realities that face Native American communities,” said De León, who is representing the plaintiffs, using an abbreviation for the ballot-interference law. “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.”

The groups also claim the law too narrowly defines the role of a family member. Under the law, a legal family member is now defined as somebody who is related through blood, adoption, legal guardianship or marriage — definitions the groups say fail to capture all Native American relations. Relationships and family bonds in tribal communities are often complex and multidimensional and may not fall within more traditional definitions of family and therefore are not represented in the scope of BIPA, the lawsuit claims.

The groups also complain the wording of the law is too murky to be fairly enforced, namely who is allowed to pick up and deliver ballots. They say the confusing definitions will make it even more difficult for voting advocacy organizations to coordinate with voters and effectively carry out their get-out-the-vote duties.

Marci McLean, executive director of plaintiff Western Native Voice, said the law can directly hinder the right to vote across numerous Native American communities.

“A main tenet of our organization’s principles is to encourage civic engagement,” McLean said in a statement. “We developed a robust get-out-the-vote program and coupled it with an official ballot collection program. We have organizers on every reservation in the state, and in urban areas. For Native voters living on a reservation, this law directly harms our ability to participate in our democracy.”

The groups want a judge to order state officials to stop all enforcement and implementation of the law and seek a declaration that the law violates Montana’s constitutional right to vote.

Alora Thomas-Lundborg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project who is also representing the plaintiffs, said the thrust of this case is about ensuring that the fundamental right to vote is protected and secure for eligible voters looking to participate in the democratic process.

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

Representatives from the Montana District Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment by press time.

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