PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will soon decide whether American Indians in rural Montana were wrongly denied on-reservation satellite voting offices that the plaintiffs say are needed to make up for the long distances they must drive to reach county courthouses.
Attorneys representing tribal members and the U.S. Justice Department on Thursday told judges in Portland that a federal judge used the wrong legal standard when he denied a request to establish satellite election offices on three reservations.
The attorneys said U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull overlooked the fact that some Indians are denied equal access to voting because they can't afford to travel up to 150 miles to county courthouses. Cebull since has retired after forwarding an email with a racist joke about President Barack Obama.
Montanans can vote by mail with early absentee ballots or by delivering ballots in person to county offices; late registration begins at county offices a month before Election Day.
Cebull ruled there was no evidence that Indians were being prevented from voting for the candidates of their choice.
Plaintiffs say that while some Indian candidates have been elected, other tribal members living on remote reservations still are disadvantaged because they lack access to late registration or early voting.
Native Americans "are still fighting for equal opportunity to participate in the political process," said attorney David Olsen, who represents 15 Indian plaintiffs from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations. Indians once were denied the vote outright.
Previously, tribal members in South Dakota sued state and county officials over satellite voting offices. That state relented and is planning to set up voting on three reservations.
The Montana case pits lead plaintiff Mark Wandering Medicine against elections clerk for Rosebud County Geraldine Custer. Wandering Medicine's great-grandfather helped defeat general George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in eastern Montana; Geraldine Custer's husband is the general's descendant.
Wandering Medicine said he must travel nearly two hours each way to reach the county courthouse. Many of the roughly 6,000 Native Americans on his reservation live in desperate poverty, are unemployed and have no cars, he said.
Voter turnout on Montana reservations runs at about 30 percent, but turnout for tribal elections that require no long-distance travel runs as high as 70 percent. Plaintiffs say the satellite offices could increase turnout in county, state and national elections.
County officials have argued it would be too difficult to train three workers for the satellite offices and to rent the equipment to run them.
Plaintiffs say the case could set a precedent and allow other Indians in the 9th Circuit from Alaska to California to get better access to voting.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited state-sanctioned discrimination against minorities.