Republican-dominated state legislatures have been working in overdrive to suppress their constituents’ voting rights. As soon as President Joe Biden was elected, the Heritage Foundation released laws already written and all ready to pop into the suppression oven. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit to challenge these laws, and the fight continues.
Just one week prior to the presidential election in Montana Laura Roundine was rushed to the hospital for emergency open-heart surgery. She lives on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. On doctors’ immovable orders, she was forced to remain at home during her recovery, according to The New York Times:
‘Don’t go anywhere while you recover, because if you get Covid-19, you’ll probably die.’
As a result, she was not able to drive the two hours it would take to vote in person. The 59-year-old woman’s husband was similarly restricted for fear of bringing the deadly virus back to his wife. They could not even go to the post office and mail in their votes. The real problem was that there is no home delivery where she lives in Starr School. In fact, that was true of most reservations in northwestern Montana.
Fortunately, Blackfeet community organizer Renee LaPlant for the Native American advocacy group Western Native Voice came to their rescue. She brought the voter applications and ballots to and from the Browning satellite election office. There are only two such offices to cover close to 2,300 square miles of the reservation.
LaPlant is one of about a dozen Blackfeet community organizers:
‘[She] couldn’t begin to estimate how many miles she had driven to help people return their ballots.’
Since then, the Montana State Legislature passed their H.B. 530 banning paid ballot collectors. Those who work for Western Native Voice are paid. Roundine said:
‘It’s taking their rights from them, and they still have the right to vote. I wouldn’t have wanted that to be taken from me.’
Sadly, Native Americans were only granted the right to vote fewer than 100 years ago. Even then, voting has not been easy for them. Now, the Republican lawmakers have new restrictions in place:
‘[B]allot 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.’
That rare Montana Democratic senator/farmer, Jon Tester won seven-eights of the counties where federally recognized tribes are located. He took 50.3 percent of Montana’s vote and a vital seat for the Democratically-led U.S. Senate. Ever consistent, Bullock won the identical counties in 2016 with 50.2 percent of the vote.
The most Democratic county in the state, Glacier County, encompasses the Blackfeet reservation.
Montana State Representative Wendy McKamey is the primary new H.B. 530’s sponsor. She said:
‘There are going to be habits that are going to have to change because we need to keep our security at the utmost. [The bill keeps votes] uninfluenced by monies as possible.’
Western Native Voice organizer Lauri Kindness works on the Crow Reservation, where she was born and continues to live 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 (R-MT) sponsored H.B. 176, and she explained:
‘[The reason for the bill] 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. 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.’
Deputy Director of Western Native Voice Ta’jin Perez told the organizers to map the communities they serve down to the street level. Once that was done, he could send the data to the Native American Rights Fund. It would be evidence for redistricting. The Billings Gazette reported that Perez told them:
‘You can either define it yourself, or the folks in Helena will do it for you.’
A commission of two Republicans, two Democrats, and a nonpartisan presiding officer picked by the state’s Supreme Court Judge Maylinn Smith will handle the redistricting. The judge is also a tribal law professor.
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