Court temporarily blocks law that restricts Indigenous voting rights

Montana – May 22, 2020, Yellowstone County District Court has issued a temporary restraining order blocking a state law that severely restricts Indigenous people’s right to vote. The action means the law is blocked pending the outcome of a hearing scheduled for May 29. The primary is June 2.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Native American Rights Fund successfully sought the order halting the so-called Montana Ballot Interference Prevention ACT (BIPA), which imposed severe restrictions on ballot collection efforts that are critical to Native American voters, particularly those living on rural reservations.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote — Indigenous-led organizations focused on getting out the vote and increasing civic participation in the Indigenous community — and the Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Crow Tribe, and Fort Belknap Indian Community.

In a state where the majority of individuals vote by mail, rural tribal communities work with get-out-the-vote organizers who collect and transport ballots to election offices that would otherwise be inaccessible. These ballot collection efforts are often the only way Native Americans can access the vote. The Montana Ballot Interference Prevention ACT would effectively end this practice, disenfranchising Native American voters en masse.

The following is reaction to the May 20 court action:

Alora Thomas-Lundborg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project: “This ruling puts the brakes on a law that made it virtually impossible for many Native Americans to vote in Montana. It is a victory for voters.”

Lillian Alvernaz, Indigenous justice legal fellow at the ACLU of Montana: “This is a welcome step in ensuring that Indigenous people living on rural reservations have access to the fundamental right to vote. Native people have been disenfranchised since the beginning of colonization, and in Montana, the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention ACT has contributed to that disenfranchisement.”

Natalie Landreth, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund: “We are pleased that the court has issued a restraining order against the so-called ballot harvesting law. This law prevents voters from getting their ballots to the ballot box and is an unnecessary and unlawful restraint on the right to vote.”

Jacqueline De León, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund: “We are heartened to see the court recognize the urgent need to restrain the unlawful ballot harvesting law. Native American voters in the upcoming primary can now use ballot collection to overcome the outrageous distances Native Americans must travel to cast a ballot.”

Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice: “This is a good day for voting rights and civic engagement. While adhering to COVID guidelines to protect our communities and staff, our organizers can now continue their robust get-out-the-vote and ballot collection efforts on every reservation in Montana knowing that their important work will not be punished. And, most importantly, our organizers can continue to ensure that more Indigenous voters on rural reservations are able to participate in our democracy.”

The lawsuit, Western Native Voice v. Stapleton, was filed in the Montana 13th Judicial District Court in Yellowstone County.

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