Judge’s ruling good news for Native American voting rights

votingrightsA case seeking to establish satellite voting and voting registration on Montana Indian Reservations will proceed.

On March 26, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled against Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s, and Rosebud, Blaine and Big Horn Counties’ motion to dismiss the case Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch.

In his order, Molloy wrote that the Supreme Court has made it clear that the location and accessibility of polling places has a direct effect on the ability to vote and that in past cases the court has ruled that the use of polling places at locations far from African-American communities or in places calculated to intimidate African-Americans is in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Tribal members living on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap Reservations are at a voting disadvantage compared to white voters in Rosebud, Blaine and Big Horn Counties because the only late registration and early voting available from now until the election is at county courthouses. These courthouses are in the white population centers and are in some cases more than 100 miles round-trip from where most tribal members live, preventing them from registering and voting after the regular registration deadline, and diluting Indian voting strength.

Satellite offices on the Crow, Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne Reservations would enable many of these voters to exercise their right to vote.

The ACLU of Montana is supporting the Montana tribes seeking satellite offices on three reservations for late voter registration and in-person absentee voting. Together with the National ACLU Voting Rights Project, we filed a friend of the court brief in the case in 2012.

The ACLU has been involved in fighting this Native American voting discrimination for more than 20 years.

In addition to ruling that the plaintiffs have standing and claims under the Voting Rights Act, Judge Molloy also denied Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s motion to be dismissed as a defendant.

“The Secretary had, and has, the ability to issue a directive telling counties that they must establish satellite voting offices for in-person absentee voting and late voter registration,” Molloy ruled. “If a directive had been issued, it would have been binding on election administrators and they would have had to take the directed action. Based on this alone, the injury as alleged can be fairly traced back to the Secretary’s decision to issue a permissive advisory and not to issue a directive requiring that such offices be established.”