Montana Native Voters Aren’t Equal—But That’s Not Enough, Says Judge
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Richard Cebull has denied an emergency request by Montana Indians, including lead plaintiff Mark Wandering Medicine, Northern Cheyenne, for satellite early-voting offices on the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Fort Belknap reservations. The October 30 decision, in federal court in Billings, has the effect of postponing resolution of the issue until after the election.
In refusing to grant a preliminary injunction that would have required Rosebud, Blaine and Big Horn counties to set up the on-reservation offices, Judge Cebull said, “I’m not arguing that the opportunity is as equal to Indian persons as it is to non-Indians.” He agreed with the Native plaintiffs that, “because of poverty, because of the lack of vehicles, and that sort of thing, that it’s probably not equal.”
However, the judge continued, the Native plaintiffs needed to prove, in addition, that this inequality meant Indians couldn’t elect “representatives of their choice.” Cebull noted that the defendants—officials of the three counties and Montana’s head election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch—had shown that Native people have elected Native officials.
Wandering Medicine conceded that a few Native officials had been elected on the county and state level, but said that given population numbers there should be more. He added that growing Native populations and the prospect of more Native influence were concerns for non-Native Montana. “They are worried. Right now we’re a kind of swing vote, but with better access to registration and voting, including language assistance for both processes for tribal members who aren’t comfortable in English, we’d have a lot more voters.”
Rosebud County Attorney Michael Hayworth, who also represented the other counties in the hearing, said in an email that setting up a satellite office would have been “daunting” and noted that his jurisdiction is a large one. “The fact that the County Courthouse, and thus the County’s Election Office, is located miles from Lame Deer [the Northern Cheyenne population center] is because of geography—not an effort to discourage voting by members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.”
Having a say in the electoral process is critical to his tribe, Wandering Medicine said. “We’re facing massive coal and methane development in the nearby Powder River Basin. What will be the cultural, economic and environmental impacts on us? Will our tribal members be able to get any jobs there? We need to participate in the electoral process to be a part of the decision-making.”
Four Directions, a voting-rights group advising the tribes, has vowed to appeal the order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.