Western Native Voice lobbies for access for tribal voters in Montana

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As the 67th Legislature deliberated changes to Montana’s election law last spring, tribal access to the polls emerged as a dominant thread of debate. Voting rights advocates and representatives of the Legislative Assembly’s American Indian Caucus have consistently argued that voting is difficult enough for much of the state’s Indigenous population and that further restrictions would lead to further deprivation of their rights.

Over the past year, one of those consistent voices of advocacy – the non-profit organization Western Native Voice – has taken a multi-pronged approach to helping Indigenous voters cast their ballots and reversing the negative impacts that the group assigns to a list of new laws. Western Native Voice lobbied for passage of House Bill 613, described by its supporters as the Native American Voting Rights Act. The bill would have addressed several oft-cited voting difficulties in tribal communities by allowing tribal members to use expired tribal IDs and non-traditional addresses to register and establishing clear requirements for polling stations. satellites in reserves. The bill was defeated by the House in a narrow vote despite bipartisan support.

But the work of Western Native Voice was not limited to the halls of the State Capitol. When the COVID-19 pandemic made traditional door-to-door registration campaigns in tribal communities too risky for the 2020 election cycle, the organization began developing an online voter registration portal to continue its sensitization. This effort quickly evolved with the installation in 2021 of three digital kiosks in public areas of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and a fourth in the lobby of the All Nations Health Center in Missoula, a strategy according to Western Native Voice is his response to the elimination of the same by the Legislative Assembly. – day of registration on the electoral lists.

“Our goal was to expand access to the online voter registration portal to as many locations as possible,” Western Native Voice deputy director Ta’jin Perez told the Montana Free Press. “So we’re thinking of public libraries, we’re thinking of tribal buildings, tribal clinics, health centers, cultural centers, and eventually, as things progress, working with private businesses and companies.”

Perez added that two registration kiosks have been set up this year on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and in the lobby of the Helena Indian Alliance Center, and more will likely be set up on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Staff at each site have been trained to help users navigate the tablets and answer questions about how the process works. Perez estimated the cost of each booth at around $1,000, with everything covered by his organization. To date, Perez said, Western Native Voice has received more than 2,000 voter registration applications through the portal since its launch in 2020.

“Our goal was to expand access to the online voter registration portal to as many places as possible.”

Ta’jin Perez, Deputy Director of Western Native Voice

The kiosks are not directly connected to Montana’s official voter registration database, which is maintained by county election offices and the office of the Montana Secretary of State. Instead, information entered into Western Native Voice’s online portal is used to produce a pre-populated voter registration form for an individual user. The organization then prints the form and sends it to the person registered to date, signs, and submits to their county election office with proof of state-approved photo identification. Perez noted that the forms come with a letter of instructions and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, though registrants can choose to deliver the forms in person. The forms produced by the portal can also be used to update a voter’s registration information.

Skye McGinty, executive director of the All Nations Health Center in Missoula, said hosting a kiosk in the lobby of her facility was a logical extension of her organization’s mission. In addition to offering a wide range of health care services, the center offers cultural classes, workshops, youth suicide prevention programs and, since the arrival of COVID-19, access to cleaning products, food, traditional medicines and teas.

“We really operate as a community center and we want to be that one stop shop for our community,” McGinty said. “So all those needs that we can meet and fill those gaps, we’re here to do that.”

Since its installation last year, McGinty said, the gazebo has sparked questions and curiosity from individuals and families, especially children. She added that it seems to serve the additional function of normalizing voter access for younger generations.

Last year, the nonprofit organization Western Native Voice set up a digital voter registration kiosk in the lobby of All Nations Health Center in Missoula as part of a nationwide effort. state to improve access for tribal voters.

While Perez thinks bringing the voter registration process to public spaces frequented by tribal members could improve access, he acknowledges that kiosks are not a “magic pill.” Systemic voting issues related to poverty, infrastructure and the idiosyncrasies of certain reservation addresses will require action by state and federal lawmakers. HB 613 attempted to address some of those issues, Perez said, but the statutory landscape produced by the 2021 session is a “world of voter suppression.”

Western Native Voice changed course, moving from supporting an unsuccessful legislative proposal to pushing for the cancellation of several successful proposals.

Last month, the organization asked a Yellowstone County District Court judge to temporarily block Montana’s secretary of state from enforcing Bill 176 and Bill 530. The former has ended same-day voter registration – a move Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen has since defended as “flat-out constitutional” – as the latter barred individuals from accepting payment for distribute, collect or deliver ballots on behalf of other voters. Western Native Voice’s petition arose out of its legal challenge to the two laws, which was filed in April 2021 and merged in December with two similar lawsuits brought by the Montana Democratic Party and the nonprofit Montana Youth Action. .

“I think we have a very good chance of reversing these decisions made by the Legislative Assembly,” Perez said, “and the fact that we are joined [as co-plaintiffs] by most Montana tribes as well as the Native American Rights Fund shows that this is a united front against these voter suppression efforts.

District Judge Michael G. Moses has yet to respond to the injunction request.

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