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Lawsuit over Native American ballot collection sees first day in court

Yellowstone County Courthouse
Posted at 11:06 AM, Sep 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-09 13:19:35-04

BILLINGS — A lawsuit filled by the Montana American Civil Liberties Union against Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton was heard in Yellowstone County District Court Monday, alleging a 2018 state voter law restricts Native American access to the polls.

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Jessica Fehr issued a preliminary injunction on May 20, stopping the enforcement Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act. On Tuesday, the Montana ACLU asked the court to overturn the law, according to Kirsten Bokenkamp, communications director for the Montana ACLU.

The law makes it so that one person may only drop off up to six ballots per election to a polling place. It also establishes a $500 fine for each ballot unlawfully collected.

The suit was filed on behalf of Montana Native American voter advocacy groups and tribes, including Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on the Fort Peck Reservation, Crow Tribe, Blackfeet Nation, the Fort Belknap Indian community and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation.

“They all have an interest in this case because Western Native Voice collects ballots on behalf of tribal members and voters and tribes have an interest on behalf of their members who reside on the reservation and who live off of the reservation," said Lillian Alvernaz, ACLU attorney.

The ACLU argues that the law restricts access to voting on Montana's reservations. In the past, voter advocacy groups would pick up ballots from people across the reservation leading up to election day.

"(Western Native Voice) have testified that (the law) actually inhibits their ballot collection efforts altogether,” Alvernaz said.

The ACLU argued that the law restricts the advocacy groups from collecting ballots from reservation residents who may otherwise have to drive an hour or more to drop off their ballot.

"We all know a trip to the post office when you have to travel that far isn’t an easy feat, considering the high unemployment rate, the high rates of poverty, the overcrowding of houses. There’s a lot of conditions that make it harder to vote without ballot collection efforts,” Alvernaz said.

The law was introduced to the state Legislature in 2018 by Sen. Al Olszewski (R-Kalispell) who argued at the time that voters were being confronted at their homes by aggressive ballot collectors.

In her May ruling stopping enforcement of the law, Fehr wrote that attorneys defending the law “failed to present any evidence of Montana voters being subjected to harassment and insecurity in the voting process or even a general lack of integrity in Montana’s elections.”

The law requires people gathering ballots to fill out a form detailing the identities attached to the ballots they brought in. County elections officials then provide the forms to the state elections office, where the forms are kept for records.

The ballot collection law is enforced on the basis of complaints made by county elections officials to the state commissioner of political practices.

“We are hearing from elections administrators that the law is just an extra burden and an extra step to collect those forms and make sure that people fill them out completely. It is unclear what exactly happens if a registry form is not filled out completely. The law is just unnecessary without that enforcement," Alvernaz said.

The suit will have a bench trial, meaning Fehr will make the final decision about the case. Alvernaz said the trial is expected to last all week.