Native American groups sue US state of Montana over ballot law

Sunday, March 15, 2020

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and Native American Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana over its 2018 Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), saying it would prevent many Native Americans from voting.

Reportedly, most Montana residents vote through the mail, including 73% of votes in the 2018 midterm elections. Since the United States Postal Service does not cover most Native American reservations, many of the people who live there fill out their ballots and give them to voting organizations to deliver to election offices on their behalf. The complaint notes many residents of Montana's reservations do not have access to reliable transportation to drive to voting sites.

Under the previous law, each carrier was limited to 80 of other people's ballots, unless they were part of the voter's family. Under BIPA, that number drops to six. The fine for breaking this law was set at US$500.

The Native American Rights Fund's Jacqueline De León said, "BIPA ignores the everyday realities that face Native American communities. It is not reasonable to expect voters to drive an hour to drop off their ballot, so collecting ballots in reservation communities just makes sense. Criminalizing this behavior is unfair to Native American voters and does nothing to solve the real problem of mail not being picked up and delivered to Native homes."

State legislators supporting the law argued it was to prevent voter fraud, specifically to prevent people from collecting ballots and then throwing them away if they did not like voters' decisions. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said BIPA "is supported overwhelmingly by Montanans, including the counties in Indian Country [...] It's always dicey when plaintiffs try to overturn the will of the people."

As of 2020, Montana had seven Native American reservations with about 70,000 people living on them. The World Population Review estimated the total 2020 population of the state at just over one million.

The plaintiffs were listed as Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Tribe, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community. The suit was filed in Yellowstone County.

An issue raised by the complaint was BIPA's definition of the term "family." Many of the Native American cultures in Montana, the complaint pointed out, have a concept of family that does not match the nuclear family idea widespread in Western culture.