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Montana Special Election Brings Special Challenges For Voter Access

Before Rob Quist became a politician, or toured the country in a bluegrass band, he lived in Cut Bank, a rural Hi-line town near where the Rocky Mountains meet the eastern plains.
Corin Cates-Carney
Before Rob Quist became a politician, or toured the country in a bluegrass band, he lived in Cut Bank, a rural Hi-line town near where the Rocky Mountains meet the eastern plains.

Colleen O’Brien didn’t know her usual polling place wouldn’t be open for Montana's May 25’s special election to fill Montana’s U.S. House seat until last week.

"It's making it incredibly inconvenient at best, and it is disenfranchising an underserved, underrepresented population at worst," O'Brien says.

O’Brien votes in East Glacier, on the Blackfeet Reservation, in Glacier County. The election administrator there has decided to cut five of its usual polling places, consolidating seven down to two — not five as we erroneously reported earlier. County officials say that’s necessary to cut costs, but O’Brien, who’s not Native American, worries the consolidation will make it harder for people living in more far flung areas of the reservation to vote.

"The reservation is vast," O'Brien says. "There's no public transportation. Many people don't have reliable transportation. Many people have mobility issues, and traditionally we’ve always voted in our own communities."

She says having fewer polling locations is an unfair way to treat tribal members, who she says are disproportionately represented in the military but underrepresented politically. O’Brien adds Native Americans weren’t even guaranteed the right to vote until the late 1960s. In this special election, she says it’s especially important that election officials ensure that every voice is heard.

"I don't think they're intentionally trying to make people not be able to vote, but I don't think they're doing their job to ensure that everyone has the ability to exercise their right to vote," O'Brien says.

But Glenda Hall, the Glacier County clerk and election administrator, says consolidation was the county’s best option.

"For Glacier County, the biggest challenges were the short turnaround time, not enough election judges, the schools still being in session in some of the polling places," Halls says. "Then, of course, the big thing is the cost, the taxpayers are footing the bill for this election."

Many counties have had to relocate polling places for the special election due to scheduling conflicts with school or special events. Hall is hoping people will take advantage of mail-in absentee ballots and on-site early voting. People can register to vote up until the polls close at 8:00 p.m. on election day, but they have to do it in person at their county election office.

"We send out the message to them, don’t wait until then, do it now," Hall says.

In the last election, 69 percent of registered voters in Glacier County cast a ballot. That was lower than the state average of 74 percent. It was even lower in some other counties overlaid by Native American reservations.

Voters in Clinton, Mont. cast ballots during the 2016 elections.
Credit Rebekah Welch
University of Montana School of Journalism
Voters in Clinton, MT cast ballots during the 2016 elections.

Civil rights activists have complained for years that Montana doesn’t do enough to ensure equal voting access for reservation communities. In 2012, a dozen Native Americans sued the Montana secretary of state under the Voting Rights Act.

"Our goal was to provide equal access to the ballot box," says OJ Semans.

Semans works for an organization that assisted in that lawsuit. He’s co-executive director of Four Directions, a non-profit organization that seeks to advance voting equality in Indian Country. Four Directions advocated for the creation of satellite voting offices on reservations, where people can late-register and vote early for the month preceding an election, just like county election offices.

"We wanted Native Americans to have the same type of access as other citizens in the state of Montana had."

Semans says voting can be hard for anybody living in a rural area, but Native Americans face extra challenges.

"If you take for instance, Northern Cheyenne; if they want to participate, they would have to drive over 200 miles in order to cast an early ballot. I mean, that’s ridiculous no matter what part of the country you’re in," Semans says.

Add to that poverty. Many people don’t have a car to drive to the election office, or that there aren’t as many post offices on reservations, so people end up sharing mailboxes and their absentee ballot may get misplaced.

"So, there's an overall philosophy that natives don't participate, and that's not true," Semans says. "Any time we've established a satellite office, we've have been able to show over and over that the numbers may not go up to the numbers of the non-Indians off reservation, but they increase hundreds of fold."

As part of the 2014 settlement of the voting rights lawsuit, the state and individual counties agreed to open satellite voting offices on reservations that ask for them. One of the two special election polling locations in Glacier County is at the Browning satellite voting office.

"Honestly, I would say the Blackfeet Reservation and the county commissioners working with them would be the poster child for equal access to the ballot box," says Semans.

Satellite voting offices can run shortened hours, or only be open certain days of the week, but the office in Browning holds the same schedule as the county election office in Cut Bank.

Semans adds he doesn’t think the county’s decision to condense seven voting locations into two will have a huge impact on voter access.

"The majority of the individuals that would be in those different precincts would be just as close right now to vote in that satellite office," Semans says.

Still, people need to know where to vote on May 25.

Again, Glacier County clerk Glenda Hall:

"It's been on the radio, it's in the newspaper, it's one of those things we're probably not going to know and have a good handle on until after the fact, after the election is over."

The special election is on Thursday, May 25. People can register to vote at most county election offices up until the polls close, at 8:00 p.m. on election day. Absentee ballots may be returned in person or by mail up until the polls close.

You can find more information about how, where and when to vote here. The Montana Secretary of State's office also has more information on voting in the special election.

MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney contributed to this story.

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