How G.O.P. Laws in Montana Could Complicate Voting for Native Americans

STARR SCHOOL, Mont. — One week before the 2020 election, Laura Roundine had emergency open-heart surgery. She returned to her home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation with blunt instructions: Don’t go anywhere while you recover, because if you get Covid-19, you’ll probably die.

That meant Ms. Roundine, 59, couldn’t vote in person as planned. Neither could her husband, lest he risk bringing the virus home. It wasn’t safe to go to the post office to vote by mail, and there is no home delivery here in Starr School — or on much of the reservation in northwestern Montana.

The couple’s saving grace was Renee LaPlant, a Blackfeet community organizer for the Native American advocacy group Western Native Voice, who ensured that their votes would count by shuttling applications and ballots back and forth between their home and a satellite election office in Browning, one of two on the roughly 2,300-square-mile reservation.

But under H.B. 530, a law passed this spring by the Republican-controlled State Legislature, that would not have been allowed. Western Native Voice pays its organizers, and paid ballot collection is now banned.

“It’s taking their rights from them, and they still have the right to vote,” Ms. Roundine said of fellow Blackfeet voters who can’t leave their homes. “I wouldn’t have wanted that to be taken from me.”

The ballot collection law is part of a nationwide push by Republican state legislators to rewrite election rules, and is similar to an Arizona law that the Supreme Court upheld on Thursday. In Montana — where Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, was elected in November to replace Steve Bullock, a Democrat who had held veto power for eight years — the effects of that and a separate law eliminating same-day voter registration are likely to fall heavily on Native Americans, who make up about 7 percent of the state’s population.

It has been less than a century since Native Americans in the United States gained the right to vote by law, and they never attained the ability to do so easily in practice. New restrictions — ballot collection bans, earlier registration deadlines, stricter voter ID laws and more — are likely to make it harder, and the starkest consequences may be seen in places like Montana: sprawling, sparsely populated Western and Great Plains states where Native Americans have a history of playing decisive roles in close elections.

In 2018, Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, won seven of eight Montana counties containing the headquarters of a federally recognized tribe and received 50.3 percent of the vote statewide, a result without which his party would not currently control the Senate. (One of the eight tribes wasn’t federally recognized at the time but is now.) In 2016, Mr. Bullock carried the same counties and won with 50.2 percent. Both times, Glacier County, which contains the bulk of the Blackfeet reservation, was the most Democratic in the state.

In recent years, Republicans in several states have passed laws imposing requirements that Native Americans are disproportionately unlikely to meet or targeting voting methods they are disproportionately likely to use, such as ballot collection, which is common in communities where transportation and other infrastructure are limited. They say ballot collection can enable election fraud or allow advocacy groups to influence votes, though there is no evidence of widespread fraud.

On the floor of the Montana House in April, in response to criticism of H.B. 530’s effects on Native Americans who rely on paid ballot collection, the bill’s primary sponsor, State Representative Wendy McKamey, said, “There are going to be habits that are going to have to change because we need to keep our security at the utmost.” She argued that the bill would keep voting as “uninfluenced by monies as possible.”

Ms. McKamey did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Geography, poverty and politics all create obstacles for Native Americans. The Blackfeet reservation is roughly the size of Delaware but had only two election offices and four ballot drop-off locations last year, one of which was listed as open for just 14 hours over two days. Many other reservations in Montana have no polling places, meaning residents must go to the county seat to vote, and many don’t have cars or can’t afford to take time off.

Advocacy groups like Western Native Voice have become central to get-out-the-vote efforts, to the point that the Blackfeet government’s website directs voters who need help not to a tribal office but to W.N.V.

Ms. LaPlant, who was one of about a dozen Western Native Voice organizers on the Blackfeet reservation last year, said she couldn’t begin to estimate how far they had collectively driven. One organizer alone logged 700 miles.

One of the voters the team helped was Heidi Bull Calf, whose 19-year-old son has a congenital heart defect. Knowing the danger he would be in if he got Covid-19, she and her family barely left their home in Browning for a year.

Asked whether there was any way she could have returned her ballot on her own without putting her son’s health at risk, Ms. Bull Calf, the director of after-school programs at an elementary school, said no.

The ballot collection law says that “for the purposes of enhancing election security, a person may not provide or offer to provide, and a person may not accept, a pecuniary benefit in exchange for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting or delivering ballots.” Government entities, election administrators, mail carriers and a few others are exempt, but advocacy groups aren’t. Violators will be fined $100 per ballot.

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund sued the Montana secretary of state, Christi Jacobsen, a Republican, over the new laws. The lawsuit alleges that the ballot collection limits and the elimination of same-day voter registration violate the Montana Constitution and are “part of a broader scheme” to disenfranchise Native voters. It was filed in a state district court that struck down a farther-reaching ballot collection ban as discriminatory last year.

A spokesman for Ms. Jacobsen did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Ms. Jacobsen said, “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.”

The state-level legal process may be Native Americans’ only realistic recourse now, because on Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld a ballot collection law in Arizona, signaling that federal challenges to voting restrictions based on disparate impact on voters of color were unlikely to succeed.

Voting difficulties are acute not just for the Blackfeet but also for Montana’s seven other federally recognized tribes: the Crow and Northern Cheyenne, based on reservations of the same names; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation; the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre of the Fort Belknap Reservation; the Assiniboine and Sioux of the Fort Peck Reservation; the Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy’s Reservation; and the Little Shell Chippewa in Great Falls.

On the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations, many residents have no internet. Often, the only way to register to vote is in person at election offices in Hardin and Forsyth, 60 miles or more one way from parts of the reservations.

The Battle Over Voting Rights

After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

    • A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
    • The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
    • More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
    • Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
    • Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
    • Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
    • Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

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