How G.O.P. Laws in Montana Could Complicate Voting for Native Americans

STARR SCHOOL, Mont. — One week before the 2020 election, Laura Roundine had emergency open-heart surgery. She returned to her home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation with blunt instructions: Don’t go anywhere while you recover, because if you get Covid-19, you’ll probably die.

That meant Ms. Roundine, 59, couldn’t vote in person as planned. Neither could her husband, lest he risk bringing the virus home. It wasn’t safe to go to the post office to vote by mail, and there is no home delivery here in Starr School — or on much of the reservation in northwestern Montana.

The couple’s saving grace was Renee LaPlant, a Blackfeet community organizer for the Native American advocacy group Western Native Voice, who ensured that their votes would count by shuttling applications and ballots back and forth between their home and a satellite election office in Browning, one of two on the roughly 2,300-square-mile reservation.

But under H.B. 530, a law passed this spring by the Republican-controlled State Legislature, that would not have been allowed. Western Native Voice pays its organizers, and paid ballot collection is now banned.

“It’s taking their rights from them, and they still have the right to vote,” Ms. Roundine said of fellow Blackfeet voters who can’t leave their homes. “I wouldn’t have wanted that to be taken from me.”

The ballot collection law is part of a nationwide push by Republican state legislators to rewrite election rules, and is similar to an Arizona law that the Supreme Court upheld on Thursday. In Montana — where Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, was elected in November to replace Steve Bullock, a Democrat who had held veto power for eight years — the effects of that and a separate law eliminating same-day voter registration are likely to fall heavily on Native Americans, who make up about 7 percent of the state’s population.

It has been less than a century since Native Americans in the United States gained the right to vote by law, and they never attained the ability to do so easily in practice. New restrictions — ballot collection bans, earlier registration deadlines, stricter voter ID laws and more — are likely to make it harder, and the starkest consequences may be seen in places like Montana: sprawling, sparsely populated Western and Great Plains states where Native Americans have a history of playing decisive roles in close elections.

In 2018, Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, won seven of eight Montana counties containing the headquarters of a federally recognized tribe and received 50.3 percent of the vote statewide, a result without which his party would not currently control the Senate. (One of the eight tribes wasn’t federally recognized at the time but is now.) In 2016, Mr. Bullock carried the same counties and won with 50.2 percent. Both times, Glacier County, which contains the bulk of the Blackfeet reservation, was the most Democratic in the state.

In recent years, Republicans in several states have passed laws imposing requirements that Native Americans are disproportionately unlikely to meet or targeting voting methods they are disproportionately likely to use, such as ballot collection, which is common in communities where transportation and other infrastructure are limited. They say ballot collection can enable election fraud or allow advocacy groups to influence votes, though there is no evidence of widespread fraud.

On the floor of the Montana House in April, in response to criticism of H.B. 530’s effects on Native Americans who rely on paid ballot collection, the bill’s primary sponsor, State Representative Wendy McKamey, said, “There are going to be habits that are going to have to change because we need to keep our security at the utmost.” She argued that the bill would keep voting as “uninfluenced by monies as possible.”

Ms. McKamey did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Geography, poverty and politics all create obstacles for Native Americans. The Blackfeet reservation is roughly the size of Delaware but had only two election offices and four ballot drop-off locations last year, one of which was listed as open for just 14 hours over two days. Many other reservations in Montana have no polling places, meaning residents must go to the county seat to vote, and many don’t have cars or can’t afford to take time off.

Advocacy groups like Western Native Voice have become central to get-out-the-vote efforts, to the point that the Blackfeet government’s website directs voters who need help not to a tribal office but to W.N.V.

Ms. LaPlant, who was one of about a dozen Western Native Voice organizers on the Blackfeet reservation last year, said she couldn’t begin to estimate how far they had collectively driven. One organizer alone logged 700 miles.

One of the voters the team helped was Heidi Bull Calf, whose 19-year-old son has a congenital heart defect. Knowing the danger he would be in if he got Covid-19, she and her family barely left their home in Browning for a year.

Asked whether there was any way she could have returned her ballot on her own without putting her son’s health at risk, Ms. Bull Calf, the director of after-school programs at an elementary school, said no.

The ballot collection law says that “for the purposes of enhancing election security, a person may not provide or offer to provide, and a person may not accept, a pecuniary benefit in exchange for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting or delivering ballots.” Government entities, election administrators, mail carriers and a few others are exempt, but advocacy groups aren’t. Violators will be fined $100 per ballot.

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund sued the Montana secretary of state, Christi Jacobsen, a Republican, over the new laws. The lawsuit alleges that the ballot collection limits and the elimination of same-day voter registration violate the Montana Constitution and are “part of a broader scheme” to disenfranchise Native voters. It was filed in a state district court that struck down a farther-reaching ballot collection ban as discriminatory last year.

A spokesman for Ms. Jacobsen did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Ms. Jacobsen said, “The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a secretary of state that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures.”

The state-level legal process may be Native Americans’ only realistic recourse now, because on Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld a ballot collection law in Arizona, signaling that federal challenges to voting restrictions based on disparate impact on voters of color were unlikely to succeed.

Voting difficulties are acute not just for the Blackfeet but also for Montana’s seven other federally recognized tribes: the Crow and Northern Cheyenne, based on reservations of the same names; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation; the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre of the Fort Belknap Reservation; the Assiniboine and Sioux of the Fort Peck Reservation; the Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy’s Reservation; and the Little Shell Chippewa in Great Falls.

On the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations, many residents have no internet. Often, the only way to register to vote is in person at election offices in Hardin and Forsyth, 60 miles or more one way from parts of the reservations.

This made same-day voter registration a popular option for people who could make the trip only once. But under a new law, H.B. 176, the registration deadline is noon on the day before the election.

Keaton Sunchild, the political director at Western Native Voice, said that last year, hundreds of Native Americans had registered to vote after that time.

Lauri Kindness, a Western Native Voice organizer on the Crow Reservation, where she was born and lives, said: “There are many barriers and hardships in our communities with basic things like transportation. From my community, the majority of our voters were able to gain access to the ballot through same-day voter registration.”

State Representative Sharon Greef, the Republican who sponsored H.B. 176, said its purpose was to shorten lines and reduce the burden on county clerks and recorders by enabling them to spend Election Day focusing only on ballots, without also processing registrations. She said that if people voted early, they could still register and cast their ballot in one trip.

“I tried to think of any way this could affect all voters, not only the Native Americans, and if I had felt this in any way would have disenfranchised any voter, discouraged any voter from getting to the polls, I couldn’t in good conscience have carried the bill,” Ms. Greef said. “Voting is a right that we all have, but it’s a right that we can’t take lightly, and we have to plan ahead for it.”

At a community organizing training in Bozeman in early June, Western Native Voice leaders framed voting rights within the broader context of self-determination and political representation for Native Americans.

With the State Legislature adjourned for the year and the lawsuit in the hands of lawyers, organizers are turning their focus to redistricting.

Montana will get a second House seat as a result of the 2020 census, and Native Americans want to maximize their influence in electing members of Congress. But arguably more important are the maps that will be drawn for the State Legislature, which could give Native Americans greater power to elect the representatives who make Montana’s voting laws.

Redistricting will be handled by a commission consisting of two Republicans, two Democrats and a nonpartisan presiding officer chosen by the Montana Supreme Court: Maylinn Smith, a former tribal judge and tribal law professor who is herself Native American.

Ta’jin Perez, deputy director of Western Native Voice, urged the group’s organizers to map out communities with common interests in and around their reservations, down to the street level. W.N.V. would send that data to the Native American Rights Fund, which would use it to inform redistricting suggestions.

“You can either define it yourself,” Mr. Perez warned, “or the folks in Helena will do it for you.”

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