Montana SoS Orders Counties, Tribal Governments to Discuss Satellite Voting

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[Photo by Audrey Hall via Great Falls Tribune]

Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch is directing counties and tribal governments to work together on setting up satellite voting locations, but some tribal advocates say the order doesn’t go far enough. The Great Falls Tribune has more:

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch has directed counties that include reservations to establish satellite election offices, but tribal activists say she’s left a big loophole.

McCulloch said she connected with tribal leaders and county election officials during the past three weeks and incorporated their feedback into her directive. She asked them to describe the needs of Indian voters and logistics of establishing the satellite offices.

“The success of these election offices on reservations will depend upon cooperation between the counties and tribes, and from my conversations with both tribal leaders and election administrators, I am confident that the collaboration will be successful and that voting access will be increased where it is needed,” she said.

Counties must analyze whether a satellite office is needed, and tribes must request an office to have it be established. The tribal government will provide office space, phone and Internet connections for the office.

Counties will send a letter on Jan. 1 to tribal government informing tribal leaders they have until Jan. 31, or another agreed upon date, to request a satellite office.

Advocates are concerned that giving counties the initial opportunity to determine the need for satellite voting could work against Native American voters:

Letting counties do their own analysis is “crazy,” said Bret Healy, a Native voting rights activist and a consultant for Four Directions in South Dakota…

“There’s nothing to indicate it’s anyone’s decision but the counties’,” he said. “They’re going to be the arbiter of if they’re subject to the Voting Rights Act. That’s like asking Jim Crow counties in the South if they were under the auspices of the Voting Rights Act.”

“They’re receptive to it, to working with tribal governments,” she said. “We’ll see if tribal governments want a satellite office. There’s 16 counties involved in this. Some counties have a small part of the reservation with nobody living on it, but I included all those counties.”

Satellite voting in Montana is different than just establishing polling places because of the wider range of services involved:

The directive follows a lengthy campaign to establish the offices, including a 2012 lawsuit and pressure by tribal groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Most reservations have polling places, but satellite voting offices offer additional services, such as late registration and in-person absentee voting. Typically that is only done at the county seat, which can be a difficult journey for some would-be voters.

“Our vote is our voice and we need to work together to ensure equal access to the election process for all citizens, and especially those with a history of being denied equal access, such as our tribal nations,” [McCulloch] said.

Advocates’ fears are related in large part to experiences in 2014:

With the settlement of the Wandering Medicine case, beginning Oct. 7, 2014, satellite offices were supposed to be open on the reservations but of the three counties in the lawsuit, only Big Horn County set up a satellite office on the reservation for the 2014 election.

In Rosebud County, Northern Cheyenne tribal officials faxed a letter formally requesting a satellite office more than a month late. In Blaine County, on behalf of the Fort Belknap Tribe, President Mark Azure sent a letter requesting a satellite office.

The Blaine County commissioners responded with a letter that because the tribe missed the deadline, sending the letter Aug. 5 instead of Aug. 1, the county was relieved of its obligation to set up a satellite office for the election.

Rodgers said people living with extreme poverty “live hour to hour and crisis to crisis” and McCulloch’s directive shows a lack of awareness.

“This has been a deeply disturbing demonstration of a lack of awareness for the civil rights of those who have so much less in our beautiful state. We are now asked to trust those, (counties) who have a record of being repeat offenders of justice,” he said. “We are now asked to trust those who have been the oppressors to be the judge and jury of the oppressed.  We are in effect asking the counties to condemn their own immoral behavior. Is that even possible?”

Obviously, emotions are high on this issue and reflect longstanding mistrust between tribal communities and counties. Here’s hoping that the counties do their part to evaluate the need for satellite voting – if not, the courts are almost certainly going to be asked to get involved again. McCulloch’s order is a start, but there’s still a long way to go.

Stay tuned …

1 Comment on "Montana SoS Orders Counties, Tribal Governments to Discuss Satellite Voting"

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