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Lawmakers Hear Montana Native American Voting Rights Act

A Big Horn County official ballot drop box stands on a street corner in Hardin.
Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
A ballot drop box at the county courthouse in Hardin, Mont. on Nov. 3, 2020.

Montana lawmakers heard passionate testimony Friday on a bill seeking to increase Native American voting rights and access to the polls.

Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy introducedHouse Bill 613 with a brief history lesson on why Native Americans were one of the last groups in the country to receive the right to vote in the 1980s.

"This is the Montana American Indian voting rights act to ensure that this generational tradition that we have now come into continues without challenges or obstacle," Stewart-Peregoy said.

HB 613 calls for the permanent establishment of satellite election offices with consistent hours and mail-in ballot drop boxes on every reservation in Montana.

Currently, tribal nations must negotiate for satellite voting offices with their local counties each election year. Many reservation residents live far from polling sites and post offices and have limited transportation.

The bill also adjusts the guidelines to verify home addresses when receiving a ballot since many tribal members share post office boxes and do not have mail or identification listing their personal address.

Members from nearly every tribal nation in Montana testified in support of the act, alongside those from Disability Rights Montana, the ACLU of Montana and many other groups.

"This is about equity," said Fort Belknap Indian Community President Andy Werk Jr. during Friday's public hearing. "Our turnout since we’ve had those alternative voting sites has doubled."

Secretary of State Office Elections Director Dana Corson opposed the bill, saying it would create technical difficulties. Two county clerk and recorders, including Joan Duffield from Rosebud County, said the bill was unnecessary.

"I feel like we're working with our tribes. We work with the tribes on the days of the week that we go there, and Rosebud County goes two days a week, 30 days before the election," Duffield said.

Republican Rep. Julie Dooling from Helena said during her two legislative sessions, she’s seen Native legislators fight election-related bills on grounds of voter suppression. Dooling said passing this bill would be a great step for the state to listen to tribal nations and work together.

"I wish our Secretary of State's office would work more closely with the Indian Caucus to make sure their vote is counted. The more I learn about life on the reservation and the struggles that they have to get to vote, we've got to work with them. Their vote matters, their voice matters," Dooling said.

The House State Administration Committee added an appropriation to the bill Friday so they can continue working on it after the Mar. 3 transmittal deadline.

Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.