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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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