BILLINGS – A group of American Indians returned to federal court Tuesday seeking an order that would force county election officials to set up satellite voting stations on remote Montana reservations in the final run-up to Election Day.
Indians from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations said the long distances they must drive for early voting and late registration leaves them disadvantaged. They say county officials who have denied their requests for satellite voting offices are discriminating against them.
With just a few days of early voting left, U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull is being pressed to act quickly.
Fort Belknap tribal council member Edward Moore, Jr. said he and his neighbors in the Hayes area have to travel more than 120 miles roundtrip to vote early in person at the county courthouse in Chinook. That costs money for gas and requires time off from work — hurdles that are magnified in a community with high poverty levels and where many people don’t have vehicles.
“It’s a big burden,” Moore said, adding that many people “may not vote at all” as a result.
Montanans can vote early by mail or by delivering absentee ballots in person to county offices. Late registration begins at county offices a month before Election Day.
Officials from Rosebud, Blaine and Bighorn counties say there’s neither enough time nor workers to set up and staff satellite offices.
“It logistically can’t be done in this time crunch,” said Sara Frankenstein, the counties’ attorney.
The defendants said in court briefs that local government should not be forced to divert time and attention from other services for what they referred to as “unnecessary voting conveniences” such as early voting.
Voting access on Election Day is not an issue in the lawsuit.
A nonprofit group aiding the plaintiffs, the Native American voting advocacy group Four Directions, has offered to pay to establish the offices. The plaintiffs contend that could be done within fewer than 48 hours and with only minimal training, said their attorney, Steven Sandven.
But Big Horn County clerk and recorder Geraldine Custer said she did not know if the county could accept the money from Four Directions.
A similar request for satellite offices was made this summer to Glacier County, which includes much of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. After initially resisting the idea, Glacier commissioners set up satellite voting services in Browning, following an Attorney General’s ruling on the matter in July.
Tom Rodgers is an enrolled Blackfeet member who earlier tried to get the Secretary of State’s office to help set up the office on the reservation. He said the state’s refusal, coupled with the resistance from county officials, shows the history of racial discrimination against Indians is repeating itself in Montana.
“It’s a more subtle, soft discrimination,” he said. If we did not push for this, it would not have happened,” said Rodgers, a lobbyist from the Washington, D.C. area who said he does pro-bono work for tribes.
State and county officials have said that given more time they might have been able to set up the offices. Blaine County Commissioner Charlie Kulbeck referred to Four Directions and other out-of-state supporters of the plaintiffs’ efforts as “carpetbaggers.”
Kulbeck, who took office in September, said the legal dispute threatens to taint relations with leaders of the Fort Belknap Reservation, which is located primarily within Blaine County.
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