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American Indians suing state over voting access

HELENA — Fifteen Native Americans are suing state and county officials over a lack of election services on three Montana reservations, saying their inability to vote early or register late there is an unconstitutional denial of equal voting access.

The Indian plaintiffs on Wednesday asked a federal judge in Billings to issue an emergency order requiring the state and counties to open satellite election offices on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations.

They say they now must drive between 27 and 113 miles round trip to reach their county offices, the only places that allow in-person absentee voting and late registration, both of which began Tuesday.

“Our position is the state has the duty to provide the same opportunities for absentee voting as non-Indians,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Terryl Matt. “We have a system designed right now where non-Indians can walk in and vote (absentee). So why can’t Indians?”

Traveling can pose an especially heavy financial burden for residents of reservation communities where unemployment rates can top 70 percent and the poverty rate is as high as 39 percent, the lawsuit said.

Montanans can vote early by mail or by delivering absentee ballots in person to county offices. Late registration begins at county offices a month before Election Day.

Voting access on Election Day is not an issue in the lawsuit.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports