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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The following is excerpted from “The Missing Native Vote,” Stephanie Woodard’s cover story in the July 2014 issue of In These Times. Woodard explains how, nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, American Indians still lack equal access to the ballot box — and how, depending on the outcome of a federal lawsuit, the war on their voting rights could swing control of the U.S. Senate.

You can read the full piece here.

It was mid-April, and Montana was gearing up for this year’s primary election. Voting would get underway in Big Sky Country on May 5, with a month of advance voting by absentee ballot — by mail or by delivering a ballot to the county courthouse — leading up to Primary Day on June 3. If people hadn’t registered, they could head to the courthouse to sign up.

But for Ed “Buster” Moore, who lives on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, it wasn’t so simple. To cast a ballot during the absentee-voting period, he would have to make the 126-mile round trip to the Blaine County Courthouse in Chinook. That’s about $21 worth of gas, not to mention the income that Moore, an artisan, would lose by taking a half-day off from his work making hand drums, rawhide bags and other items that he sells in the community and on the Internet. A diabetic, he’d have to buy lunch on the road. Those expenses add up.

If he had to vote today? “I couldn’t afford it,” Moore says. For tribal members who are unemployed or receiving assistance, voting would be impossible, he says. “It’s sheer economics.”

Moore’s situation isn’t unusual. Though measures that curtail minorities’ voting rights, such as stringent ID requirements and limited voting time, have made headlines in recent years, the challenges Native Americans face when they go to the polls have never been on the national radar. In the second decade of the 21st century, nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices, American Indians are still working to obtain equal voting rights.

Montanans can register to vote during the month preceding elections — but there’s a catch. The courthouses where they register are in largely white-inhabited county seats, not on reservations. In the nation’s fourth largest state — at 147,040 square miles, bigger than Germany — that can mean daylong trips for people like Moore from isolated reservations.

And that’s just registration. The month-long voting period is supposed to make casting a ballot easier, and hundreds of thousands of Montanans take advantage of it. In 2012, 42.5 percent of voters either mailed in an absentee ballot or voted in person during the month leading up to Primary Day, according to state election results. In-person voting, however, is only allowed at those same county courthouses, a long way from reservations. And voting by mail poses its own difficulties, thanks to unreliable postal service on reservations. For Native people, casting a ballot in Montana can be a multi-day event.

The distance between reservations and county courthouses isn’t just an inconvenience; for many Natives, that distance can mean the difference between voting and not voting. Johnathan Walker, student body president of Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda College and an avid participant in get-out-the-vote efforts, recalls one 85-year-old woman who missed her opportunity to vote because Walker was unable to secure transportation for her to the courthouse.

To measure the impact of these hurdles, a 2014 report by Jean Schroedel, a professor of political science at Claremont Graduate University, examined voting methods used in the 2012 general election in three Montana counties that overlap reservations. In Blaine County, she found, 46 percent of voters in white precincts cast absentee ballots. Meanwhile, just 18 percent did so in Indian precincts. The proportions were similar elsewhere in the state.

None of this adds up to equal rights, according to former Fort Belknap tribal president and cultural leader William “Snuffy” Main. “Indians have one day to vote, assuming they’ve registered ahead of time, and everyone else has a month,” says Main, a board member of the Native voting-rights nonprofit Four Directions. As Mark Azure, Fort Belknap’s current tribal president, puts it, “I would love to walk out the door, cross the street, cast my vote and get back to my life — and not have to take half a day and go off the reservation to a town where I know that … I’m not really welcome.”

He may soon be able to do just that, thanks to a federal lawsuit led by Mark Wandering Medicine, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran who would have to travel 180 miles round trip to get to a county courthouse. The case, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, pits plaintiffs from three Montana reservations — Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Crow — against county elections officials and the secretary of state and top elections officer, Linda McCulloch. The plaintiffs demand equal access on their reservations to the absentee voting and late registration currently offered only in county courthouses.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Stephanie Woodard is an award-winning journalist whose articles on American Indian rights and other topics have been published by many national publications and news sites.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Copyright 2014 The National Memo
  • Allan Richardson

    Before the Civil Rights Act, most Southern states (I grew up in Florida, so I remember knowing this long before I was old enough to vote) required voters to make the trip to the courthouse not less than 30 days before EVERY election; i.e. voting rolls were purged after every election and registration had to start over. Obviously this was done so that poor black people who lived in the country would face this burden every time they wanted to vote: not only transportation to the county seat for them, but for urban blacks as well there was the intimidation factor. It was easy to get arrested on a pretext just getting CLOSE to the courthouse. Only in the 1960s, and probably more as a money saver, were voter rolls kept between elections, and voters only purged (supposedly) if they failed to vote for a few years, as it is now.

    I can well understand why white settlers in Montana didn’t really want the “redskins” as they called them to cast their votes! And now the partisan angle gives them even more reason. I hope the court does force them to set up registration and early voting offices near reservations, and near small rural towns also.

    • highpckts

      I also notice that you and I are the only ones interested in whether the native Americans get the vote! They were here first and yet we have the audacity to shove them aside like they were non entities! We lied to them, moved them and killed them for the sake of greed! Now it’s happening again only this time the wealthy are going after most of us!!

  • FireBaron

    Probably one reason this doesn’t register is people in the East Coast are used to the various Nations being integrated into the local population (smaller reservations and more affluence), and able to vote. However, having been out west (most of my experience is with Navajo) they are widely spread out with little local support systems enjoyed by the Eastern Nations.
    Up until the 1960s, whenever there was a desirable piece of land the Native Americans were sitting on, some corporation would manage to either get the tribal leaders to sign over land rights permanently, or get Congress to realign the borders of the Reservation lands to their benefit. Not as bad today, but it is still there, as evidenced by Montana Voting.

  • charleo1

    Coincidently, the last of the WWII Navajo, “Windtalkers.” passed away, just this past week. It’s hard to overstate their contribution to the war effort, it was legendary. As the Germans were never able to break the code, that was their Native language! I mention this, not only to mark the passing of the last of these remarkable Patriots. But to also make the point, of the injustice, in denying the fundamental Rights to a people that are not just entitled to them by law. But, are owed to them, because they’ve earned them. And the comments by, “highpckts,” are all too true. Their lack of access to their democratic Rights, are a disgrace. I do not believe it’s a case so much of not caring, but not knowing. Too often assuming they all own casinos, maybe, and are doing well, if we think about them at all. Forgetting about the far too many, who due to reservation policies of the past, and let’s be honest, deep seated discrimination, are living on land, far from the mainstream, and the opportunities that have past them by. I was delighted to see President Obama visiting, and raising the profile of these proud, and wonderful people. He was only the 4th such President to do so, in the history of our Nation. A recognition, much like insuring their Rights as full fledged Americans of the first order, long overdue.

  • Pamby50

    American Indians deserve the right to vote just like the rest of us. As for them being more republican than democratic, so be it. As the President said, you can’t gerrymander everything. If you want to win, you have to go out & make the case for them to vote for you.