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Western Native Voice bill would improve voting access for Montana’s tribes

Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency

Montana’s tribal nations are fighting back against renewed voter suppression by backing a bill that would permanently ensure them better access to the right to vote.

On Friday, Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, will introduce House Bill 613, the Native American Voting Rights Act, in the House State Administration Committee where she knows she faces opposition from Republican legislators.

“If you’ve been tracking what is going on in the Legislature this session, there are a number of voter suppression bills that are trying to undercut the rights of individuals. So this is a very important bill in the respect that it’s ensuring that our rights as citizens are not undercut,” Stewart-Peregoy said in a Thursday afternoon press conference.

In the wake of the 2020 mail-in ballot election that saw record voter participation in Montana, Republicans have introduced several bills that would walk back existing voter privileges. HB 176 would eliminate same-day voter registration; HB 406 and HB 563 would remove the ability of people to carry others’ absentee ballots to the polls or drop-off locations; and SB 169 changes identification requirements for voter registration.

Many attempt to reinstate laws that have already been successfully challenged in the courts. All would affect the participation of Native Americans, in addition to seniors and college students.

For example, in 2020, the state mailed ballots to voters, but Stewart-Peregoy, who has voted in Big Horn County for 40 years, said she almost didn’t get to vote in the primary because she didn’t receive a ballot. It had been mailed to her physical address, not her post office box, and the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t deliver to her physical address. So requirements prohibiting the use of post office boxes for absentee ballot mailings created problems for her and other reservation residents.

That’s one of several things the Native American Voting Rights Act would correct.

“These are all important aspects, because over the years, these are areas where we have had a lot of difficulty,” Stewart-Peregoy said.

When it comes to identification cards, the state accepted only state IDs at first, and then accepted tribal ID’s but with physical addresses. The act would allow tribal ID’s to have a nontraditional address on the reservation, as long is it’s clear which voting precinct a tribal member lives in. Tribal government buildings can serve for mailing addresses.

The act would also create permanent satellite election offices on the reservations to give tribal members better access. In 2014, tribes from the Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations sued to create satellite election offices. Prior to that, a Flathead Reservation tribal member living in Dixon, for example, would have to take a two-hour roundtrip to the Sanders County Elections Office in Thompson Falls, twice as far as going to the tribal government offices in Pablo.

However, since 2014, some counties have offered only limited hours at satellite offices, such as a few hours a week, making it difficult to schedule a visit. In October 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Pondera County after it tried to refuse to open a satellite office for the Blackfeet Nation. That would be remedied with permanent offices, and the cost would be split between the tribes and the state, Stewart-Peregoy said.

The act would also allow individuals to deliver more than just their own ballot to drop-off sites.

Montana used to have no limit on the number of sealed absentee ballots people could deliver or who could carry them. But in November 2018, Montanans pass a legislative referendum as part of the Ballot Interference Protection Act saying only family members or caregivers could deliver ballots and then only six ballots.

Western Native Voice and the tribes of five of Montana’s reservations sued in Yellowstone County with the help of the ACLU and the judge overturned the referendum in September 2020.

ACLU legislative program manager Sam Forstag said pushing so many bills based on false claims of voter fraud is an irresponsible use of state resources, because the bills are going to be struck down in court.

“One of these bills, HB 406, is a near replica of the Ballot Interference Protection Act that was just enjoined by a district court six months ago,” Forstag said. “There’s really a deluge of bills. I think legislators are almost becoming inured to the notion that these are unconstitutional. The state needs to show a compelling interest as to why they’re doing that, but the only interest seems to be driving down voter turnout.”

Keaton Sunchild of Western Native Voice said his organization and other tribal members started writing the bill before the Legislative session to eliminate barriers encountered in 2020. If it isn’t passed this session, Sunchild said they’ll keep introducing it until it is.

“We had record turnout, close to 67% in Indian Country in 2020. We want to keep that trend going up. The trend has been going up since 2014. This bill would push us forward and make Montana one of the leaders in the nation when it comes to native voting rights,” Sunchild said.

Stewart-Peregoy pointed out that Native Americans weren’t allowed to vote before 1965 and even then, they ran up against Jim Crow laws and gerrymandering. So it’s only been in the past 20 years that Native Americans have become a voting block to be reckoned with. For example, election analysts credit the Navajo with putting Biden over the top in Arizona.

“They’re beginning to feel the impact of our vote,” Stewart-Peregoy said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.