- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2021

American Indian tribes in Montana are suing over new election laws in the state, claiming a ban on ballot collection and Election Day voter registration discriminates against tribal voters.

The 44-page lawsuit filed in state court challenges a law enacted last month that ends Election Day registration and a law enacted last week that blocks ballot harvesting from rural areas.

Tribal voters in Montana have relied on same-day registration since 2005.

“Native Americans residing on reservations are more likely to be geographically isolated from polling centers where in-person voter restoration or dropping off a voter registration application can occur, and they often lack the means to travel to those locations to register to vote or drop off a voter registration application prior to an election,” the complaint reads.

It’s one of several lawsuits filed across the country as red states have enacted election integrity laws in the wake of the 2020 election, which saw a historic amount of mail-in balloting. Critics claim the laws are aimed at suppressing the vote, especially those of minorities.

In the lawsuit against Montana’s laws, the American Civil Liberties Union is representing five tribes, which include more than 45,000 members. 

“These measures are not only blatant attacks on Native American communities but also pose a clear and present danger to the foundations of our democracy,” said Alex Rate, legal director of the ACLU of Montana. “These harmful bills will prevent many Montanans from exercising that fundamental right to participate in the democratic process.”

The lawsuit claims the new measures “violate the right to vote, freedom of speech, and equal protection of the laws protected by the Montana Constitution.”

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is the named defendant in the lawsuit, and she promised to defend the election integrity laws.

“The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a Secretary of State that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures,” Ms. Jacobsen said.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a law that requires voters to register by noon the day before Election Day, and another measure that requires voters who do not have a government issued ID or conceal carry permit to show two other forms of identification.

The election laws passed largely by a party-line vote in the Montana Legislature.

“Montana has a long history of secure, transparent elections, setting a standard for the nation,” Mr. Gianforte said in a recent statement. “These new laws will help ensure the continued integrity of Montana’s elections for years to come.”

The ACLU said courts in the past have been critical of these types of measures, pointing to a ruling last year where a judge recognized American Indians rely heavily on ballot collection.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is grappling with a lawsuit over Arizona’s restrictions on ballot harvesting and other election conduct.

The Democratic National Committee argued in court papers that Arizona’s measures disenfranchise minority voters — including American Indians — because they live farther from polling places than White voters.

The U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Arizona, but on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the Democratic National Committee and said the state had enacted its election laws with discriminatory intent.

Arizona’s legal battle gives the justices a chance to bolster a state’s right — such as those enacted in Montana — to determine how it runs its elections against a push from Democrats to relax voting requirements.

An opinion in that case is expected by the end of June.

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