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SPOKANE, Washington, Dec 13 2013 (IPS) - In a lawsuit that could have nationwide implications for ballot-box access for tribes across the United States, Native Americans from Montana are pushing for early voting precincts to be placed closer to the locations of three tribal reservations – the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Fort Belknap reservations.
“I live in the most isolated area of the reservation. There are no services at all. This is the smallest community of the reservation. We have to drive 21 miles just to go to post office, go to store, go to clinic, gas station, stuff like that,” Mark Wandering Medicine, 66, of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and the lead plaintiff in the suit, told IPS.
He and others filed on Oct. 10, 2012, with the hope of obtaining emergency relief in time for the November 2012 election, as well as permanent relief going forward.
The case recently headed back to the U.S. District Court of Montana, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit voided an earlier ruling by the district court.
On Nov. 6, 2012, the district court ruled against Wandering Medicine on the request for emergency relief, arguing that there was already sufficient evidence that Native Americans in Montana had sufficient political power to elect candidates of their choice.
Wandering Medicine appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that any relief related to the 2012 election – now in the past – was a moot point. However, in vacating without comment the lower court’s ruling, Wandering Medicine can now have a full hearing on the merits of the claims for permanent relief, which have remained pending in the lower court.
The state of Montana allows early voting state-wide for the 20 days leading up to each election; however, the early voting locations are all at the county seats, which are often far away from the reservations.
“When they organised these counties there was no Native American involvement – back then, we were probably still at war… and they put them [the county seats] pretty far away from actual reservations,” O.J. Semans, executive director at Four Directions, a Native American advocacy organisation, told IPS.
Wandering Medicine lives in an area called Birney Village, Montana, about 33 kilometres away from Lame Deer, where the tribe has an office. Birney Village does have a voting precinct, but only on election day; not during early voting.
The problem is Wandering Medicine and others often have difficulties getting to their polling locations on election day itself, so the early voting period becomes very important.
“There’s a hardship of getting back and forth to Lame Deer,” Wandering Medicine said, noting he missed the November 2012 election day due to a vehicle problem.
“The weather being a factor also. If somebody lives in outlying districts and we get one of these Montana winter storms on election day, you can’t make it,” he said.
The distance from Birney Village to Forsyth, the county seat for Rosebud County, Montana – where early voting is held for the county – is about 140 kilometres.
“It’s a little over a two-hour trip one way. We don’t have transportation services with the tribe here,” Wandering Medicine said.
Wandering Medicine said voter turnout helps determine where services go in the different counties.
“If you don’t get the proper numbers of the people that can be registered to vote and they don’t make it because of hardship conditions, then the numbers appear to be less at the county, and then we don’t get that much revenue sharing,” he said.
“Everyone [in the tribes] is aware of the importance of voting, because it means progress for us when we exercise our vote,” he said.
Semans said that they were fighting for equality.
“If you look at the [U.S.] Census, in a house [on the reservations], it’s usually two to three families, and probably one car to every one family, so transportation really doesn’t exist on the reservation where they could take advantage of this early registering to vote,” Semans said.
He said that what a lot of people did not realise was that the elections were held on the first Tuesday in November, explaining that it was around the time of the month when people did not have money and were just struggling to survive until their next social security payment.
“If you look at the social programmes that happen in Indian Country to help people survive – you have people that get Social Security or disability cheques – they only get paid once a month. For the 30 days in between, they have charge accounts,” Semans said.
“On election day, a lot of the poor people have to take care of business to survive for the next 30 days,” Semans said.
Four Directions has been working to promote equal access to early voting for tribes across the U.S. He said that after early voting was established in Mission, South Dakota, Native American turnout increased by 140 percent.
“Every study has showed that if you are not involved in the electoral process of elected officials, your social and economic development will be non-existent. These plaintiffs are trying to get equality because they know if they’re able to do this, they can improve their schools, their businesses, any type of social programme,” Semans said.
David Bradley Olsen, attorney for the plaintiffs with the Henson Efron law firm, told IPS: “Native Americans have less opportunity to participate in the political process because they’re denied the same rights to late registration and early voting that are afforded to non-Indians.”
“The original district judge [Richard Sebell] picked up on a couple of words in the Voting Rights Act, and concluded [that because] it has been showed that Indian candidates and Indian-preferred candidates, meaning Democrats, had been elected… that’s good enough, that’s the end of the inquiry, no violation,” Olsen said.
“We argued, that’s not the law, that the law is: do they have an equal opportunity to vote, to participate in the political process?” Olsen said.
If not, “there’s a denial of their right to vote, their right to vote has been abridged.”
In an interesting twist of events, Sebell was forced to retire in April 2013 while the case was on appeal, for sending racist emails concerning President Barack Obama.
Olsen said the case would be assigned to a new federal judge, and that he was pushing for the case to be expedited in time for the November 2014 election.
If the plaintiffs are successful, it will likely increase Native American early voting access throughout the federal Ninth Circuit, which includes most of the Western U.S., where the ruling would be controlling. The ruling could also influence courts throughout the nation, Olsen said.
The lawsuit could potentially determine the balance of the U.S. Senate because U.S. Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, is retiring, leaving an open seat.
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