Chief Judge Richard F. Cebull makes a speech during a Naturalization Ceremony at the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse on June 23, 2011.

Montana Native Voters Aren’t Equal—But That’s Not Enough, Says Judge

Stephanie Woodard


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.

Related articles:

United States Backs Native Voting Rights in Montana, Counties Want $90K if They Lose

Early-Voting Advances in South Dakota—Montana Up Next

Montana Tribes Demand Equal Access to Early Voting


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andre's picture
Submitted by andre on
Justice Cebull, needs to be replaced. His temperament is not suited to the word justice for all.

montanamiddle's picture
Submitted by montanamiddle on
One of the key aspects of this case (according to those fighting for Native voting equality) is that a non-profit 'get out the vote' Native organization called "Western Native Voice" testified saying that these reservations didn't need satellite voting stations. Coming from Natives themselves, was obviously a key testimony. Ironically, according to their website: "Western Native Voice is spearheading a groundbreaking campaign to register and turn out a record number of American Indian voters in Montana..... Western Native Voice intends to accomplish this by creating a permanent, sustainable voter engagement infrastructure within Native American communities...." Sounds to me like they were content to disenfranchise voters instead of help them out. This isn't merely a few Farmer Joe's out in the boondocks here and there, but entire communities of thousands of people that have to travel 140 miles round trip. Of course, I'm assuming that Western native Voice said what every non-Native against equal voting access said, "That they can get absentee ballots!" However, doesn't Western Native Voice realize the irony of forcing thousands of First Americans to vote ABSENTEE in their own country?

notnek's picture
Submitted by notnek on
If this guy can and will send racist e mails then it is very apparent his opinions are subject to his views on any person or group of color.

talyn's picture
Submitted by talyn on
The judge himself says that the Native plaintiffs do not have equal opportunity to vote, and then comes up with some twisted logic as to why that isn't really a problem? We haven't come nearly so far as I had hoped when it comes to universal suffrage and basic civil rights. The arguement that a handful of people wno share the plaintiffs' cultural and ethic background have managed to get elected to some offices does not lead neatly to the conclusion that the disenfranchised voters are still able to elect representaives of their choice, as the judge seems to suggest. Now, if there were Native officials in the government in equal or greater proportion than are Native people present in the general population, you might have room for some argument, but nowhere does that seem to be the case!