Montana Voting-Rights Backlash; Governor Calls Legislators 'Worse Than Washington'
Montana state Democratic Senator Sharon Peregoy appears to have been ejected from the Senate’s ethics committee—for pounding on her desk during a rowdy protest of all Democratic senators in that legislative body on Friday, April 5, said Peregoy, who is Crow. The Democrats, who are in the minority, had attempted to block majority Republicans from passing bills seeking to restrict voting rights, according to Peregoy.
When the Senate’s Republican president Jeff Essman ignored a Democratic motion, the minority members stood, shouted and banged on their desks for 15 minutes, as observers in the 2nd-floor gallery surrounding the chamber stamped, screamed and whistled. With Essman bellowing over the ruckus, Republicans passed the measures and sent them to the House.
“The voting measures were among numerous anti-Indian bills the Senate has taken up,” Peregoy said. “I’ve never seen so many in one session—including water compacts, the size and range of bison herds and more.” Peregoy is one of three Native members of the 50-member Montana senate; the 100-member house has an additional five Natives.
One of the voting bills calls for a statewide referendum to end Election-Day registration. If it succeeds, Montanans will have to register to vote by 5 p.m. the preceding Friday. Essman told the Great Falls Tribune that this would prevent long lines on Election Day, confusion and potential fraud.
Reservation residents will be hit hard, Peregoy said. “In a recent election, 14 percent of those utilizing this option were Indians, which is about double their proportion of the electorate. Some people are doing everything they can—gerrymandering and more—to stack things against Indian voting.”
The fraud issue is a distraction, according to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, whose office audits Montana elections. She wrote in a Billings Gazette editorial, “Voter fraud—votes knowingly cast by ineligible individuals—does not exist in Montana.”
The other election-related bill seek statewide referendums to restrict third-party participation and to cut back on the types of IDs that can be used for voting. Using referenda to achieve these changes avoids a potential veto by Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat.
After the stormy legislative session, Bullock said there was “no more important right than the one to vote.” He deplored the majority senators’ action, calling them “worse than Washington” and saying they would disenfranchise many would-be voters who had a recent change of address, from soldiers to college students.
Peregoy, who retains her other committee memberships, including education, agriculture, and business and labor, was ejected from the ethics committee by an uber-panel—the Committee on Committees, she said. On Tuesday, April 9, ethics chair Elsie Arntzen, a Republican, was still in the dark about exactly what had happened. “We’re usually a very collegial group, and I greatly value Sharon Peregoy’s insights,” Arntzen said. “This has all been very challenging.”
Peregoy saw the elections bills as part of a backlash against the Indian vote, which over the past decade has emerged as a deciding factor in elections throughout the West. Montana Indians have elected many Democrats to statewide positions, ensured that Jon Tester held onto his U.S. Senate seat in 2012, and helped the national Democratic Party retain control of the Senate last fall.
Montana Natives also recently brought an important voting-rights lawsuit, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, in which tribal members seek on-reservation early-voting offices, which help increase election participation. (Related story: NCAI, DOJ Weigh in on Behalf of Native Voting Rights Plaintiffs)
“We have taken a stand for voting rights,” said Peregoy.