BILLINGS — A voting rights lawsuit involving three American Indian tribes will go back to a federal court in Montana after an appellate panel declined to intervene.
The plaintiffs from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap tribes say three counties should set up satellite voting offices to make up for the long distances they must drive to reach courthouses for early voting or late registration.
After a now-retired judge declined to intervene before the 2012 election, the 16 Indian plaintiffs appealed.
But a three-judge appeals panel wrote in a Wednesday opinion that the emergency injunction request by the Indians is now moot. They sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Montana for a decision on future elections.
The U.S. Justice Department has sided with the plaintiffs, alleging that retired U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull overlooked the fact that some Indians are denied equal access to voting because they can’t afford to travel up to 150 miles to county courthouses.
Cebull since has retired after forwarding an email with a racist joke about President Barack Obama.
One of the organizers of the lawsuit, Blackfeet tribal member Tom Rodgers, who is also a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., said he hoped county officials will voluntarily choose to set up the satellite offices rather than continue to contest the case.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Mark Wandering Medicine, whose great-grandfather helped defeat Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana. He is opposed in the lawsuit by officials including Rosebud County elections clerk Geraldine Custer, whose husband is the general’s descendant.
Custer said no decision has been made in Rosebud County regarding a satellite voting office for the upcoming election. She said the hesitation to establish such an office on the Northern Cheyenne reservation stemmed primarily from logistical issues, such as keeping ballot numbers consistent. She pointed out that residents of remote communities not on the reservation also must travel long distances to reach the courthouse.
No counties in Montana have satellite voting offices, said attorney Sara Frankenstein, who represents the defendants, including officials from Rosebud, Big Horn and Blaine counties and Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
Frankenstein said that Montana law requires ballots to be issued chronologically, which she described as a “major obstacle” to having them issued in both a county courthouse and a satellite office.
Previously, tribal members in South Dakota sued state and county officials over satellite voting offices. That state relented and is planning to set up voting on three reservations.
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