To build a more perfect union and allow everyone to have a voice in our elections are the bedrock ideas behind our elections in the United States and especially here in Montana. However, if recent elections are any indication, that vision is becoming less and less of a reality for many Native American voters. The last two elections have seen numerous attempts to limit one of the main lifelines of elections in Native communities: ballot collection.
Western Native Voice (WNV) has long been a proponent of ballot collection, which allows designated individuals or family members to collect a voter’s signed and sealed ballot and deliver the ballot to election officials on the voter’s behalf. Whether it is our community organizers, friends, family members or neighbors, we are firm believers in the fact that it should not matter how ballots reach the elections offices so long as they are counted.
For the last few elections, WNV has trained our field teams in the safe and secure collection of ballots. In 2020 alone, over 500 voters, according to data collected by WNV organizers, were able to cast their votes thanks to the hard work of our organizers collecting their ballots. At the time, Montana’s law — the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA) — imposed strict restrictions on ballot collection and threatened to disenfranchise Native American voters in the state. We couldn’t sit by while Native voters’ right to vote was in jeopardy, so in March 2020, WNV sued the secretary of state to protect ballot collection in Montana.
In September 2020, just before the general election, a Montana district court ruled that ballot collection by WNV organizers was a constitutionally protected right, handing down a win for Native voters. In its ruling, the court held that by not allowing voters to have their ballots collected, the state was violating voters’ due process and right to privacy. But, it turns out that the court’s order wasn’t enough to stop Republican state lawmakers from further attacking ballot collection.
Only a few months later, in May 2021, Montana placed further restrictions on ballot collection by enacting House Bill 530, which bans anyone who would receive a “pecuniary benefit” (or financial advantage) from returning a voter’s ballot while helping with ballot collection. Yet again, we found ourselves in another round of litigation, challenging yet another suppressive law. Fortunately, the court temporarily blocked H.B. 530 while litigation continues, and with the trial set to begin today, we will continue to fight so that this law is blocked permanently.
While ballot collection is not limited to Native Americans, statistics show that Native voters rely on this service more so than any other voters since they often lack reliable transportation, have spotty or non-existent internet service and are located in some of the most rural areas of Montana. It can be difficult to find transportation that can get these voters to the county seats, the locations where a majority of voter services take place, and some cannot afford gas or take time off of work to make the sometimes hours-long drives to their elections offices.
As someone who lives in Great Falls, I can drive just six minutes from my front door to my elections office, which is open five days a week from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. It is very easy for me to make the quick trip if I need to get a replacement ballot or change anything related to my voter registration. For voters living on reservations though, they get one, maybe two days a week for a few hours during the two weeks leading up to an election to have access to these types of services on the reservation. Satellite offices act as traveling county seats for voters in rural areas. Voters can register to vote, get a replacement ballot, cast a provisional ballot, and many of the other voter services available at the county. The county-provided satellite offices are under no obligation to provide these types of services five days a week, eight hours a day. If a county sets up a satellite office between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a particular Tuesday, for instance, voters who cannot take time off work that day are out of luck. Native American voters should not be given less time to vote simply because of the fact that, generations ago, they were placed onto reservations that were sometimes hundreds of miles from county seats. Out of sight, out of mind so to speak.
Data from the secretary of state’s office showed voter turnout among Native American voters in Montana was at its highest in the 2020 general election, but still falls far below the state turnout as a whole. Native voters have to jump through more hoops than any other group simply because of the remote areas Native Americans have been forced to live in, and that is why WNV is working hard to break down those barriers. In addition to our ongoing fight to secure ballot collection, we are working to ensure Native voters can use their tribal IDs as valid identification at the polls and educating our Native communities on their rights as voters, including how to get a replacement ballot, how to request an absentee ballot, how to handle being turned away at the polls, how to return their ballots safely to their polling places and how to combat voter discrimination.
Despite no evidence of election fraud or irregularities in our elections, Montana continues to enact voter suppression laws like H.B. 530, often at the expense of Native voters. Above all, WNV believes in holding the traditional values of helping our elders, helping our families and helping one another. Our organization was founded on the ability to lift each other up and support our communities. It is in the fabric of Native American culture to help one another and it’s why we are fighting on the ground and in court to protect the right to vote for Native voters throughout Montana.
We will continue our work to inspire Native leadership through civic engagement, public policy advocacy and education, all with the underlying message that we are not invisible, we have a voice and our voices matter. And, sometimes, we need to fight for the things that matter most.
Keaton Sunchild is the political director for Western Native Voice.