Without voting on Election Day, without collecting ballots, Native Americans have no voice

(Daily Montanan) Blackfeet Tribe attorney Dawn Gray described the relationship between the tribe and Glacier County election officials as “hostile” and filled with retaliation.

His description of the relationship with Pondera County was even worse: the tribe had to take legal action in 2020 just to get satellite voting in Heart Butte when the county refused.

“I have a job, an income and a car. I can only imagine what it’s like for one of our residents who is homeless,” Gray said in court Tuesday.

Tuesday was Day 2 of a two-week trial where three election laws are being challenged as unconstitutional. These three laws ended Election Day registration, paid ballot collectors, and changed the acceptable ID needed to vote.

Testimony in Yellowstone County District Court on Tuesday ranged from expert analysis of election laws, while also focusing on those affected by the changes the 2021 Montana Legislature implemented in the name of election security and rural county stress reduction.

However, a large group of plaintiffs, including the Blackfeet Nation, the American Civil Liberties Union and Western Native Voice, all said the new laws violate states’ constitutional voting protections and unfairly discriminate against Native Americans living on reservations. .

Closing the door to Native American voices

In his court testimony, Gray described the challenges of life on the reservation — from the lack of reliable transportation to the lack of internet coverage.

She was even more explicit when it came to describing the living conditions and poverty that exist on the 1.5 million acres that span Glacier and Pondera counties.

“A lot of them have broken windows and broken doors. We’re in a flood plain, so many (houses) are filled with mold,” Gray said. “

The waiting list for tribal housing is over 100 people, and 200 people want to be on it but are not eligible due to non-payment of rent.

In Heart Butte, the tribe recently had to remove 12 children from a house with no windows or doors.

Because the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t have door-to-door delivery, Gray said, tribal members are forced to use a post office box system where residents share a box, but don’t have a physical address. This poses a problem when voting because they do not have an address.

But in a place where the winds are so strong they tip tractor-trailers, sometimes even mail from Great Falls is delayed for days.

“Our culture, especially in tribal elections, is based on voting at the polling station, but if you don’t have your basic needs for the day, like transportation, you won’t go to the polling station. In some circumstances, it’s desperation because you don’t have transportation and you don’t have money for the ride or gas,” Gray said.

She told the court that in 2020, the tribe was forced to spend nearly $10,000 because Glacier County pulled the ballot boxes three days before the election. She testified that the tribe decided to employ ballot collectors because of this incident. And she also reported that county officials moved polling places without sufficient notice.

Gray also said Western Native Voice, a grassroots group organized to help Native Americans participate in democratic processes, was one of the few groups that could help tribal members in places like East Glacier, St. Marys, and Heart Butte. to vote.

“Without them, they couldn’t vote,” Gray said.

Even without tribal funding to pay ballot collectors, she said the Blackfeet Nation would still not be able to employ paid ballot collectors. She said the tribe considered the possibility, but rejected it.

“If we interpret (House Bill 530), will we be liable for the fine? Or will the ballots be rejected? Gray asked.

The wording of HB530 says ballot collectors should not receive any “monetary benefit,” but the law exempts government officials. Gray said it’s clear lawmakers intended to exclude postal workers or election officials, but she’s not so sure the new law would encompass tribal government, which is often referred to differently. in other parts of state law.

“If you take away Election Day registration and ballot collection, you close the door to our voice,” Gray said.

No ballot for you

Bozeman’s Thomas Bogle testified that he registered to vote after he and his wife moved from Colorado to Montana. He and his wife filled out paperwork at Bozeman’s DMV for mail-in ballots as they obtained Montana driver’s licenses. She received her ballot in the mail. He does not have.

But before Election Day, he checked his voting status, finding he was still on the Colorado voters list. He then filled out another form, but still did not receive a ballot. When he went to the Gallatin County Elections Office in November 2021 to vote in a municipal election, a clerk told him that the DMV paperwork was still in process, but that due to changes in the law , he would not be able to vote that day.

“I was wrongly denied the opportunity to vote, and this is a chance to correct that,” Bogle said in court on Tuesday, responding to his reason for appearing. “(The Clerk) mentioned the Same Day Voting Act and explained that the Legislative Assembly had passed it and because of that Act I was not going to vote.”

Expert testimony

The day opened with Professor Ryan Weichelt of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire defending a study he conducted that calculated driving times and distances to post offices, county seats and Department of Motor Vehicle locations – all locations where registration or voting activity took place.

Lawyers for Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who is called upon to defend the new laws, pointed out that 17 places Weichelt excluded from her study likely skewed the results, tilting them towards longer driving times. When Weichelt was called upon to defend the places he had excluded, he said they were because of unique natural obstacles, like winding mountain roads, that made them different from other places.

However, the lawyers presented several maps showing fairly routine and sometimes straight roads with no obstacles, such as the route from Springdale to Big Timber along Interstate 90.

Lawyers also pointed out that Weichelt did not weight his study to determine how many residents were affected by the long commute times to these locations, and he did not take into account whether many or a few were burdened by certain longest travel times.

The group of plaintiffs also relied on Alex Street, a professor of political science at Carroll College, who focused much of his day-long testimony on voting habits on Election Day, sometimes referred to as “voting on Election Day.” same”.

House Bill 176, passed by the 2021 Legislature, changed voting on Election Day, pushing it back to the day before the noon election. Lawmakers said the change was needed to give smaller, rural offices more time to prepare for the election.

“Attention to elections tends to peak on election day,” Street said. “It’s because the media and publicity coverage buys and the conversation then peaks.”

Montana adopted Election Day registration in 2005, and Montana voters have repeatedly supported the measure.

Street’s research found that half of all votes cast during the “late registration period” – that is, 30 days before the election – are normally cast on Election Day itself, while that the other remaining half is distributed during these other 29 days.

“Voting and registering are less expensive and potentially have benefits, especially with a highly mobile population,” Street said.

And Gray, of the Blackfeet Tribe, argued that with chronic homelessness in places like the Blackfeet Nation, tribesmen often have to move from place to place, often “surfing a sofa”, which makes it difficult to have a stable and permanent address.

Street’s testimony also supported the idea of ​​paid ballot collectors as a way to overcome some of the obstacles faced on reservations in Montana – for example, the lack of postal service.

Gray said the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t have enough post office boxes for the roughly 6,300 enrolled adult members of the Blackfeet Tribe, and it doesn’t deliver residential mail, meaning many share post office boxes. For many, Street said, ballot collectors are a vital link in getting ballots to a collection site.

Street noted that Montana tribesmen use Election Day registration at about double the rate as other residents who do not live on the reservation.

“There are pretty clear and consistent patterns and high-quality data that Native Americans in Montana are more reliant on Election Day registration than others,” Street said. “There’s a huge body of research on EDR and it’s been pretty clear and the consensus is that it has a positive effect on voter turnout.”

That turnout, Street told the court, ranges from 1.5 to 3 percent.

“It highlights that Election Day is special,” Street said.

Electoral fraud

When the 2021 Legislature passed a series of laws changing the electoral system in Montana, majority lawmakers argued they were concerned about voter fraud and election integrity. Street’s research addressed these issues, including research on Election Day and ballot collection.

Street noted that most of the things prohibited in HB530, which governs the collection of paid ballots, such as tampering with a ballot, altering a ballot, or destroying a ballot, are already illegal under Montana law.

“Any suggestions of fraud … under (HB)530 are already illegal in Montana, and there is reason to be skeptical of the claim that it will reduce fraud,” Street said.

Nohemi M. Moore